Philly community college students look at early effects of soda tax

A survey by students at Philadelphia Community College on the city’s sweetened beverage tax found 46 percent of respondents had cut back on consumption of such drinks and a third said they had made purchases outside the city to avoid the tax.

The survey of 1,320 people aged 14 and older was conducted by students in a psychology class taught by associate professor Richard Frei. Students presented findings on Monday from the month-long survey, which aimed at capturing attitudes and drinking habits related to the 1.5-per-ounce levy on sweetened beverages which went into effect in January. 

While the survey won’t be published in any official capacity, it offers some independent analysis of the impact of the  tax, Frei said. He wants to collect more responses over the Spring and Summer.

“The goal is not to advocate, the goal is to use research to assess,” Frei said following Monday's presentation at the college. “The whole point of the project was to give students an opportunity to engage in critical thinking by giving them information about different aspects of this debate.”

Of respondents, 32 percent said they have left the city to buy sweetened beverages. Most of those who did  made over $50,000 a year or lived closer to the edges of the city.

Twenty-two percent said they’ve gravitated toward cheaper brands. Most of these respondents made less than $50,000 per year.

The sample size surveyed was 65 percent female, and slightly younger and more educated than Philadelphia’s population. The racial breakdown mirrored the city’s.

The survey also looked at opinions of the tax. While respondents overwhelmingly supported expansion of early childhood education, which is being funded by the tax , they also expressed cynicism over whether the money would be used as promised.

Respondents also said they thought stores were taking advantage of confusion over the tax to raise prices on items not subject to the levy.

The survey also looked at consumption and health. On average, respondents reported drinking 18 ounces of sweetened beverages per day.

People with diabetes, asthma, insomnia and depression reported consuming more soda than respondents without those physical and mental health concerns.

“We found people who reported depression, anxiety and insomnia drank 8-10 ounces more a day than people who didn’t,” Frei said.

About half of all responders took the survey online while the other half took it in person on paper. In an attempt to account for biases, the survey asks if respondents are employed in child services, the beverage industry or nutrition. The group will continue collecting data through the summer. Those interested in responding to the survey, can do so here.