Tag Archives: philadelphia soda tax

Philadelphia Mayor Puts His Foot in his Mouth – Again

The Curmudgeon has expressed his relatively low opinion of Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney in this space on a number of occasions – including well before Kenney became mayor or was even a candidate for mayor (for examples, see here, here, here, and here). Among other shortcomings, Kenney has a tendency to speak before he thinks – not a good quality in an elected official or anyone else, for that matter.

One of Kenney’s biggest accomplishments as mayor of Philadelphia so far has been getting his city council to pass a tax on sweetened beverages (only Democrats see raising taxes as an accomplishment in itself). When advocating adoption of the tax Kenney insisted that its proceeds would be used for programs in the city’s troubled and perennially underfunded public school system, but within 48 hours of the tax’s passage Kenney made it clear that the schools would have to share that money with other – and lesser – causes.

The Curmudgeon neither strongly supports not strongly opposes the soda tax. Kenney and his supporters made no pretext of using the money to compensate for the damage sweetened beverages do to people’s health, as was the case with the national tobacco settlement of some years back that intended – not always successfully – to spend the proceeds of the lawsuit’s settlement to fund smoking prevention and cessation programs and to help underwrite health care for low-income people whose health had been ruined by their cigarette habit. (In fact, at the very end, the Philadelphia city council sponsors of the tax reduced the tax rate on sweetened beverages and instead extended the tax to artificially sweetened beverages as well, which makes absolutely no sense.) For Kenney and his friends soda was just an easy, convenient target as a means through which to pay for things that none of them thought were important enough to merit the diversion of even a dime of city money from other purposes. In other words, the schools – as is always the case – were a very low priority, and without the soda money they would be out of luck. It was a gutless but effective way to raise the money, and the merits of the tax are a subject on which reasonable people might disagree.

So, too, is the question of whether the soda tax is even legal. In Pennsylvania, cities and counties aren’t permitted, under state law, to tax anything the state already taxes, and Pennsylvania already applies its sales tax to soda, which raises the question of the tax’s legality. The city claims the tax is on the soda companies and not on consumers – even though everyone knows consumers will be the ones actually paying the tax – and therefore not subject to the state-imposed limit on what can and cannot be taxed.

The Curmudgeon isn’t a lawyer and doesn’t pretend to have any real knowledge of the law, but it sounds to him like a dispute that might best be judged by judges – that is, in the courts, not in newspapers or on Twitter. It’s not unreasonable for the soda companies and retailers to sue to have the tax overturned and to seek their day in court.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Kenney’s response to the lawsuit:

While it is repugnant that the multi-billion-dollar soda industry would try to take away these educational and community programs from the hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who need them, we were not surprised by their lawsuit given the ten million dollars they have already spent opposing the tax,” Kenney said in a statement. “I have no doubt we’ll be successful in defeating the lawsuit.”

What a complete and utter tool Kenney is.

Contrary to what Kenney said, it is not repugnant for a person or company that feels it has been wronged to seek legal recourse.

And the idea that the soda industry is “trying to take away these educational and community programs from the hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who need them” is laughable, ludicrous, and downright ignorant – and an insult to anyone who heard or read those words. No one is trying to take away anything from anyone. For starters, those programs exist today only on paper: nothing is being taken away from anyone because that tax was only passed in June and the city will not even begin collecting it until January. Not a single one of those hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who need those services is being deprived of them.

There’s nothing repugnant about an industry that thinks it is being subjected to an illegal tax asking a court to consider the legality of that tax.   What is repugnant is a mayor who says such a thing – whether he says it because he really believes it or because he wants to inspire people to support the tax. That makes him either stupid or evil, and neither is good news for the people who elected him to office.

Political Bait and Switch

Jim Kenney was elected mayor of Philadelphia last November and took office in January. The Curmudgeon has a particularly low opinion of Mr. Kenney and has expressed this on several occasions in this space (including here, here, here, and here).

Alas, Kenney is living down to The Curmudgeon’s expectations.

The “living down” part actually began with an encouraging development: Kenney proposed spending $80 million so the city could provide universal pre-K education and so he could transform some of the city’s public schools into more community-oriented institutions, complete with family services such as health care, counseling, child care, after-school programs and more.

So far, so good, right?

Although he served for 23 years on Philadelphia’s city council, Kenney apparently didn’t think there was any fat at all in the city’s budget, so he decided he needed to raise the $80 million through new tax revenue – and not an ordinary increase in any existing city taxes, either, but through the creation of a new tax: on “sugary drinks.” The Curmudgeon shared his thoughts about that idea here.

It was a cagey political gambit: instead of just an ordinary tax increase, Kenney was proposing a special tax for a god/country/apple pie kind of purpose. It was hard to say no to “Let’s do it for the kids.”

A lot of people wanted to say no, of course, including those in the soft drink industry, which would bear the brunt of the tax increase, as well as convenience store owners, restaurant owners, and people who drink a lot of sugar-filled soft drinks. It was a new kind of sin tax, but still similar to the surcharges government imposes on people to smoke and drink alcohol (although the idea that sugar is “sinful” is ridiculous).

The public campaign was built around this premise: a three cents per ounce tax on sugary beverages, with the proceeds to go for full-day pre-K education and turning public schools into more community-oriented facilities. While the campaign to support this was geared toward the public, the public had no voice in the matter: it was the public’s elected members of city council who would make the call. The purpose of the campaign was to generate public support to encourage members of the city council to vote for the tax. The soda industry launched an aggressive campaign in opposition, often making it look as if it was joined by small convenience store and restaurant owners. Of course the soda people paid the freight – a reported $5 million – but still, there was organized and forceful opposition.

For a while the mayor’s proposal looked like it was in trouble, especially when the president of city council, who is waaaaay smarter than the mayor, expressed his opposition. Still, the idea of taxing something bad for people to do something good for people exerted a powerful pull on a lot of folks and eventually, the city council came around and passed the new tax.

And then the public learned what really happened.

The opposition to the size of the tax proved effective: the tax rate, three cents per ounce, was cut in half.

So how to make up for the lost revenue? Simple: tax diet beverages as well.

Whoa, Nelly: that wasn’t at all part of the public discourse during the months the proposal was discussed and debated.

So what happened? How did the tax change from one that penalized the use of something thought to be harmful to a tax that just raised money through beverage sales regardless of whether the beverage in question is considered harmful?

Through an old sales tactic known as “bait and switch,” that’s how.

But there’s more: that was by no means the end of the baiting and switching.

It turns out that the new tax that was supposed to be solely for the school improvements isn’t actually solely for school improvements after all: 20 percent of the new money will go into the city’s general fund, with all of the rest of the local tax revenue and be spent on ordinary, everyday city government things like the local community college, juvenile offender programs, and city employee benefits.

Another bait and switch.

It’s not right. Regardless of whether you were for or against the tax, the mayor made it clear how the tax money was to be spent and why he chose to tax sugary beverages. In the end, though, it wasn’t about healthy or non-healthy, it was about getting the money.

And then at the eleventh hour he informed Philadelphians that he wasn’t going get the money the way he explained he was getting it and wasn’t going to spend the money the way he said was going to spend it. His entire campaign for the tax, a campaign designed to encourage taxpayers to encourage their members of city council to support it, was built on a gigantic and intentional, with malice aforethought, fabrication.

Kenney is the perpetrator of a huge political bait and switch.

In other words, he is a liar.

The Foolishness of Soda Taxes

Sometimes The Curmudgeon gets what he thinks is a good idea for a blog piece but some publication beats him to the punch on the subject. Usually that means beating himself up a little for being slow to bring his idea of life and then putting the idea aside and moving on to the many others he has warming up in the bullpen.

And sometimes it means plunging ahead and writing that piece anyway.

This is one of those times when he’s plunging.

Recently elected Philadelphia Mayor Nitwit, about whom The Curmudgeon has written on a number of occasions (here, here, here, and here), arguably has some decent ideas, among them universal pre-kindergarten for all Philadelphia children and transforming public schools into broader community centers, or “community schools,” as they seem to call them. The problem is that he has no money to do these things, so to raise it, and with all the good vices taken (the city already taxes cigarettes and booze out the wazoo, and until Pennsylvania catches up with other states and legalizes marijuana, he can’t impose a joint tax), he turned his avaricious eye to what they call “sugary drinks.”

Surely you can't think something so delicious could be so bad for you.

Surely you can’t think something so delicious could be so bad for you.

Mostly, soda.

Of course, Mayor Nitwit doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, so the idea is not his. His predecessor tried it and failed, and soda taxes have been introduced elsewhere. Berkeley, California has the only soda tax in the U.S.; Michael Bloomberg tried, unsuccessfully, to get one in New York City; France, Mexico, and Norway have such taxes, one will begin in Britain 2018, and other countries are currently considering them; and Denmark, strangely, instituted such a tax in the 1930s (along with a “fat tax”) but abolished it in 2013.

The rationale for taxing soda is that it’s a high-calorie, high-sugar product with no nutritional value. Also, it’s theoretically contributing to fattening up our children and giving us diabetes. In fact, it’s the number two cause of fattening up our children and putting them at risk of getting diabetes.

The number one cause, of course, is bad parenting. When those of us of a certain age were growing up no one knew all this stuff was as bad for us as it’s turned out to be, so our parents get a mulligan for getting us addicted to sweets. Today’s parents do know better, so there’s no excuse.

So The Curmudgeon was planning a short piece on the many other sugar-laden things you’ll find in convenience stores and grocery stores that are as bad for you as a bottle of Coke, and he even began making a list of such things and researching their sugar, calorie, and nutrition content, when disaster struck.

Disaster in the form of former Philadelphia Mayor/Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a guy who’s never said no to a sweet treat and never failed to have something to say whenever a reporter sticks a microphone or tape recorder in front of his face. When asked about the proposed tax, Rendell, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, said

How about doughnuts? Things like that? I’m a big consumer of Dunkin’ Donuts, but why are they exempt?

The Curmudgeon has always liked Eddie and this only makes him like Eddie more.

But The Curmudgeon was undaunted, so let’s look at some of the targeted beverages as well as some of your beverage alternatives. (And with this disclaimer: The Curmudgeon doesn’t drink carbonated beverages and gave up sugar in his iced tea a few years ago because of fear of diabetes because he had a lot of sugar in his diet and also because his eye doctor kept looking at his damaged eyes and asking him if he had diabetes, so he has no dog in this fight.)

But it gives you energy!

But it gives you energy!

Let’s start with a baseline:

  • Coca-Cola (16 ounces) – 185 calories, 52 grams of sugar
  • Mountain Dew (16 ounces) – 210 calories, 62 grams of sugar
  • Snapple Lemon Iced Tea (16 ounces) – 200 calories, 46 grams of sugar
  • Coke Slurpee (16 ounces; does anyone get them that small?) – 130 calories, 36 grams of sugar

The first three would be taxed under the Philadelphia proposal. The Slurpee? That’s not clear, but since they say they’re charging the tax to the distributors and not at the retail level and Slurpees are made in the store, there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut answer at this time.

And yes, that’s a lot of sugar.

Like that other white powder, you're hooked.

Like that other white powder, you’re hooked.

So what, exactly, is a “lot of sugar”? One teaspoon of sugar has four grams of sugar, so one tablespoon has 3×4 grams of sugar or 12 grams of sugar (The Curmudgeon has wicked math skills). So that 16-ounce Coke? Four tablespoons plus a teaspoon of sugar.

Holy toothache, Batman!

For the record, the American Heart Association says women shouldn’t have more than about six teaspoons of added sugar a day (24 grams) (“added sugar” meaning sugar added to food, as opposed to sugar that occurs naturally in food, such as in fruit) and men no more than about nine (36 grams).

Which means that Coke you had with lunch today blew your sugar budget for the day – and for tomorrow, too.

Would Anita Bryant lie to you?

Would Anita Bryant lie to you?

Now let’s look at some of your presumably more nutritious beverage alternatives:

  • Minute Maid Orange Juice (16 ounces) – 225 calories, 48 grams of sugar
  • Sweetened apple juice (16 ounces) – 234 calories, 36 grams of sugar
  • Nesquik low-fat chocolate milk (16 ounces) – 260 calories, 29 grams of sugar

Not a whole lot healthier, are they? In fact, except for the Vitamin C, how is orange juice better for you than a Coke? So why isn’t orange juice being fitted to wear the scarlet letter S (for “sugary”)? And what about that chocolate milk?

Maybe it’s coffee you crave, so let’s visit Starbucks:

  • Did you know that a 16 ounce cup of black coffee has only 4 calories?

    Did you know that a 16 ounce cup of black coffee has only 4 calories?

    Caffe latte – 16 ounces – 190 calories, 17 grams of sugar

  • Caramel Macchiato – 16 ounces – 240 calories, 32 grams of sugar
  • Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino Blended Coffee – 16 ounces – 380 calories, 58 grams of sugar

The Curmudgeon doesn’t drink coffee, either, but that cinnamon dolce frappuccino sounds pretty amazing – and like heart disease in a mug. Why isn’t Mayor Nitwit going after the sugary coffee drinks?

So if you’re in your neighborhood convenience store, maybe you decide to go healthy with a nice, six-ounce carton of Yoplait strawberry yogurt. The totals: 150 calories, 18 grams of sugar.

Okay, so that’s a little better. An apple, by comparison, is 95 calories with 19 grams of sugar.

But if you’re buying soft drinks you also may be in the market for a sweet snack. Here are a few of your choices:

  • Nobody bakes a cake as sugary as a Tastykake.

    Twinkies (2) – 270 calories, 33 grams of sugar

  • Tastykake chocolate cupcakes (for our Philadelphia-area readers) (3 cupcakes) – 315 calories, 35 grams of sugar
  • Reece’s Cups (2) – 210 calories, 21 grams of sugar
  • Snickers bar – 215 calories, 20 grams of sugar
  • Almond Joy (package) – 234 calories, 24 grams of sugar
  • Hershey bar (1.55 ounces) – 220 calories, 24 grams of sugar

Or maybe you go a little upscale:

Cheesecake Factory – 1 slice of strawberry cheesecake – 730 calories, 66 grams of sugar.

Why aren’t those Cheesecake Factory folks being targeted for indictment for attempted murder?

Finally, let’s not forget Ed Rendell’s Dunkin Donuts:

  • Suddenly I'm looking pretty healthy, aren't I?

    Suddenly I’m looking pretty healthy, aren’t I?

    Chocolate frosted (one) – 280 calories, 13 grams of sugar

  • Glazed (one) – 260 calories, 12 grams of sugar
  • Sugar (one) – 310 calories, 13 grams of sugar

Actually, donuts look almost like the responsible choice here, don’t they? The Curmudgeon was so suspicious of these numbers that he checked comparable products made by Krispy Kreme but their calorie counts and sugar content were similar.

So here’s the question: what’s the rationale for limiting the tax to the sugary beverages at which it’s being targeted? Why not those Starbucks treats, too? Why not the candies and the cakes and the caffeinated extravaganza beverages that have no nutritional value but tons of fat-creating calories and diabetes-inducing sugar?

There is, of course, one defensible rationale for a sugary drinks tax: if the city planned to invest every penny of the tax’s proceeds into brand-new anti-obesity programs. It’s not, of course, and unlike when Mayor Nitwit’s predecessor tried to pass the same tax in 2009, this guy’s not even pretending he’s seeking the tax to address the harm caused by the products.

So when you come right down to it, this is a greedy city government led by a nitwit mayor looking to tax anything it can get its hands on to feed its insatiable appetite for things it can’t afford. The “we’re doing it for your own good” argument is patronizing and dishonest: they’re doing it because they can, and because when they run for re-election they can say they didn’t raise taxes because in their twisted minds, creating a whole new tax doesn’t count.

Ha! All this anti-sugar stuff is great news for us!

Ha! All this anti-sugar stuff is great news for us!

Those of you who have no sweet tooth – The Curmudgeon knows there are such people out there but doesn’t understand the concept at all – may find this all rather amusing, but be forewarned: the public sector’s thirst for tax revenue is unquenchable and after they come for our sweet drinks they’re going to be coming next after your sodium-filled, hypertension-inducing salty snacks, so enjoy those chips, nuts, Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos while you can!