It’s all but certain that Philadelphia is less than a week away from becoming the first large U.S. city to pass a tax on sodas. (Berkeley being the only other one.) If the measure passes a final vote on June 16, like everyone assumes it will, Philly will tack 1.5 cents onto every ounce — a not-inconsiderable sum that comes to about 30 cents per 20-ounce bottle, or a little over $2 for one of those fridge 12-packs.
The other cities mulling soda taxes right now (San Francisco, Boulder, Oakland) might want to note Mayor Jim Kenney’s success in selling the measure as a way to fund prekindergarten and fix up the city’s rec centers and libraries, rather than positioning it as a Bloombergian nanny-state crusade against evil soda. What could make it a real watershed for the anti-soda forces is a surprise change City Council made when passing the measure Wednesday. Kenney had asked for a 3-cent tax on drinks with added sugar, but opponents argued that was too steep. Instead, the council’s version decided to lower it to 1.5 cents but add a tax to diet sodas to make up for the revenue shortfall. Philly is about ten times the size of Berkeley, and has a much, much higher poverty rate, and the council argues middle- and upper-income residents consume more diet sodas than lower-income people do.
Casually expanding a sugary-drink tax to include sodas with no sugar at all is maybe the clearest sign yet of the doomsday scenario Big Soda now faces. Sales continue to tank, food-industry influencers are calling for a minimum soda drinking age, and now lawmakers say they see no meaningful distinction between those “healthier” diet sodas and the sugary ones. The tax drew national attention before it included diet drinks — Michael Bloomberg sunk thousands of dollars into pro-tax ads around town, and Big Soda countered with several million of its own. Not one to pass up a good pun, Philly’s City Council president Darrell Clarke admitted their decision “will probably leave some people with a sour taste in their mouth,” and it’s hard to imagine that will exclude the soda industry, which is probably already lawyered up and waiting to pounce once the measure passes.