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Sugary Drink Tax Hits Philly

May 2, 2017
By Ben Pyle

Suppliers will likely pass the tax on to consumers, who won't imbibe less sugar anyway.

Distributors of sweetened beverages are now taxed for selling sodas, sweetened water, and other drinks containing sugar to retailers offering these products in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, raising consumer prices significantly.

The Philadelphia Beverage Tax applies to “any non-alcoholic beverage, syrup, or other concentrate used to prepare a beverage that lists as an ingredient any form of caloric sugar-based sweetener, including, but not limited to sucrose, glucose, or high fructose corn syrup,” states the City of Philadelphia’s website. Artificially sweetened diet and “zero-calorie” drinks are also taxed.

The first tax collection date was February 20. For every ounce delivered to “dealers” (such as “delis, restaurants, or grocery stores”) after January 1, 2017, distributors must pay the city 1.5 cents, according to the city’s website. The tax increases the cost of a 12-ounce can by 18 cents, the cost of a two-liter bottle by $1.01, and a 12-pack of cans by $2.16.

The tax is part of an agenda to “improve the education, health, and prosperity of children and families,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D) stated in a press release after the City Council approved the tax in June 2016.

Just a Spoonful of Taxes

Ruth Kava, a senior nutrition fellow at the American Council on Science and Health and a registered dietician, says the presence of sugar in foods not considered “sweets” makes measuring the health effects of taxes on sugary products difficult.

“Sugar is in so many foods—ketchup, for example—that everyone could claim [a tax] worked or didn’t by picking and choosing products,” Kava said.

Sweetened beverages are an easier target for tax advocates than other sugary products, Kava said.

“If we tax actual sugar rather than a product that’s become popular to criticize, like soda, we are penalizing people who eat yogurt, and for some, that is a good source of nutrient intake,” Kava said. “Lots of other foods would similarly be impacted.”

More Flies with Honey

Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar and winner of the Science in Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers, says he doubts a sugar tax will change consumers’ habits, but convincing them ignorance is risky could.

“I’m simply not confident that they actually deter sugary beverage consumption because of the price,” Taubes said. “There’s evidence to suggest that kids or adolescents can be induced to avoid sugar if they think that the sugar industry is actively trying to take advantage of their naïveté. The same argument was used successfully to reduce teenage smoking, and so it might work with sugar.”

Educating people to make their own informed decisions about their health achieves better results than sin taxes, Kava said.

“Smoking has plummeted since the American Council on Science and Health came into existence and began educating people about its harms,” Kava said. “Taxes did not do that. When New York City piled on even more cigarette taxes, it didn’t change smoking a bit; it just created a larger black market, and tax revenue dropped. What did work was awareness about the health impact of smoking and the availability of smoking-cessation tools.”

Sweet and Sour

Starting in July 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require food manufacturers to print “Added Sugars” amounts in a revised “Nutrition Facts” label on food packaging.

Taubes says people would probably live healthier by assuming sugar is guilty until proven innocent.

“Proving a direct link can be difficult, if not virtually impossible,” Taubes said. “What I argue is that sugar is the prime suspect for the dietary trigger of these diseases and that we might want to assume it’s the cause until we have pretty damn good evidence to believe it’s benign.”

Kava says manufacturers could voluntarily implement a market-based solution to the overconsumption of sugar.

“For food, manufacturers could put ‘No Added Sugar’ on labels,” Kava said. “That would generate an increased awareness of all the foods that sugar is added to and accomplish less sugar consumption, for people who are concerned, without government control.

Trusting the Consumer

Taubes says educated consumers can generally be trusted to act in their own best interest regarding sugar consumption.

“Ultimately, I’m more of a fan of education—i.e., if people get the right message about sugar, they will make the right informed decisions,” Taubes said.

Involving governments in individuals’ private health decisions is a recipe for enormous unintended consequences, Taubes says.

“My first book and first investigative articles on nutrition were about how misguided liberals like myself, with a public health agenda, pushed for government policies on the nature of a healthy diet that ultimately did more harm than good,” Taubes said. “While I think they’d be right if they went after sugar, rather than fat or salt, it makes me nervous when governments get involved.

Ben Pyle (bpyle@cedarville.edu) writes from Cedarville, Ohio.

Image via Thinkstock

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Health Care Taxes