Soda Tax Experiment Progresses in Philly

A new soda tax experiment will be starting January 1 in Philadelphia. On Thursday, the Philadelphia city voted 13-1 to approve a 1.5 cent per ounce tax on all packaged beverages that are sweetened with sugar or no-calorie sweeteners. The beverage industry says it will sue to stop the tax from being implemented.

To his credit, Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, has been pretty clear that this tax is about funding education. Any impact on obesity is secondary.

Other advocates of the tax, though, are not shy about making bold predictions. Michael Long of George Washington University recently co-authored an analysis of the impact of the Philly’s tax with professors from the Harvard School of Public Health. Though the tax has been cut in half since the analysis was done, Long told NPR:

The evidence is clear that when prices go up, people buy less of things. We’d expect over 12,000 cases of obesity prevented by the end of the 10-year period, as well as $65 million in health care cost savings over the 10-year period.

Fellows from the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution say that the effectiveness of taxing unhealthy foods and drinks is not quite so clear. In a report published last December, they say:

Taxing can influence what people eat and drink, but it is not a silver bullet.

The sugar reduction from taxing sweetened drinks, for example, could be partly offset if consumers switch to juice and beer or eat more bread or cookies.

Consumption of sugary sodas has been on the decline for about a decade, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said for obesity rates. We hope that smart, objective researchers will study the outcomes of this experiment in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, another declaration of mission accomplished in reducing the health impact of obesity is not warranted. Mayor Kenney is right. The soda tax has more to do with raising revenue than reducing obesity.

Click here to read more from NPR and here to read more from Politico.

Experiment, photograph © Jeff Golden / flickr

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June 18, 2016