THE ONLY WAY to avoid the debate about Mayor Kenney's sugary drink tax would be to move at least 200 miles from Philadelphia.

The advertising campaign against Kenney's proposal is virtually everywhere in local media market: in the newspapers, on TV, even in commercials in movie theaters.

The ads, sponsored by the American Beverage Association, insist on calling Kenney's proposal a grocery tax. That's like calling the cigarette tax a grocery tax because cigarettes are sold in supermarkets and grocery stores.

If you don't buy cigarettes at your local supermarket, your grocery bill won't go up a dime. The same is true of the sugary drink tax.

If passed, you can avoid paying the tax by not buying sugary drinks, a list that includes not only sodas, but also iced tea and sports drinks.

Retailers and the beverage industry are worried about their bottom line. For consumers, the tax would be a hardship only if we had no choices. But most soda and juice makers have low- to no-sugar alternatives. For example, the high fructose corn syrup in a two-liter bottle of Coke is the equivalent of 60 teaspoons of sugar. The same size bottle of a Diet Coke has zero.

For the record, the American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons of sugar a day for men and six teaspoons daily for women.

The beverage marketers are pouring money into the anti-tax effortbecause they don't like taxes on their products and are particularly fearful that, as Philadelphia goes, so will the nation. Other cities will tap into sugary drinks to raise revenue.

The industry also was outmaneuvered by the mayor. Instead of basing the tax on health-related reasons - Americans consume way too much sugar - he is using it simply as a mechanism to raise the money needed to expand subsidies for pre-kindergarten to all the city's 3- and 4-year-olds. To provide this, he needs $60 million a year - and that kind of money is not available from existing taxes.

No one - including the titans of the beverage industry - wants to go on record as opposing a program that helps children. So, they must portray it as an anti-consumer, anti-(beverage industry) jobs and anti-poor people, because the poor are believed to favor sugary drinks.

The industry wants us to forget we are all adults. If shoppers do not want to pay a tax of 3 cents an ounce, they will look for alternatives. Instead of paying $3.82 for a two-liter bottle of Coke, they can pay $2 less for two liters of Coke Zero or Diet Coke.

If people are addicted to sugar, they can lace their drinks with regular sugar, which isn't taxed. They would have to add 60 teaspoons to a two-liter bottle of Coke Zero to make it have the same sugar content as regular Coke. Or they could just eat 60 spoonfuls of sugar. The thought of that isn't very appetizing.

But, what is soda? Carbonated water, flavorings and heaps of sugar or its equivalent.

We support the sugary drink tax, not because we are anti-soda or even anti-sugar - though the health costs of an oversugared population are staggering - but because pre-K has proved to be an effective program that could give children an educational boost that could last for years. It is a program that has value and substance . . . and, unlike soda, no empty calories..