DN editorial: Council needs to be brave and OK sugary-drink tax

The tax on sugary drinks is Mayor Kenney's idea.

CITY COUNCIL is scheduled to vote Wednesday on Mayor Kenney's sugary-drink tax.

We urge Council members to summon their courage and pass it.

As Kenney has proposed it, the 3-cents-an-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-laden drinks would raise $95 million to fully fund pre-kindergarten and create a special fund to accelerate repairs and renovations on rec centers, libraries and police and fire facilities.

No other alternative offered so far comes close to raising the total needed for those initiatives.

Every member of Council favors the mayor's plan on how to spend the money. They just don't want to enact the taxes needed to fund it.

When we say summon up the courage, we don't mean that Council is afraid of irate voters who love their Dr Pepper. Council members are afraid of the soft-drink industry, which is fighting tooth-and-nail against Kenney's proposal.

It's not the tax itself the distributors are concerned about - though they genuinely do hate the idea - it is the ripple effect passage of the tax is likely to have around the nation. If a sugary-drink tax is enacted in Philadelphia, other cities are sure to follow.

The tax is attractive for two reasons: It is a source of revenue for financially starved local governments and it is a way to change behavior. Consumption of sugar is a major contributor to the twin scourges in America today: obesity and diabetes.

Consuming less sugar will improve health. Taxing drinks with high sugar content is one way to encourage people to seek alternatives, such as water or diet drinks.

Critics claim the sugary-drink tax is regressive, because low-income people favor sugared drinks and the additional cost will hit them harder. But the tax is only as onerous as consumers let it to be. If they select low- or no-sugar drinks, the cost will be negligible. They get to choose.

If you want to talk about regressive, consider Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown's bill to impose a 15-cent tax on all drinks sold in containers.

That can of diet Pepsi would be taxed at 15 cents, as would regular Pepsi. But, it doesn't end there. Bottles of water would be taxed at 15 cents. So would fruit juice, seltzer water, ready-to-drink coffee and tea. The list goes on. (The bill does exempt milk products and baby formula.)

The beverage industry and some retailers labeled Kenney's proposal a "grocery tax" and spent a ton of money on ads and telephone call-out campaigns to convince us it was.

Kenney's proposal was not and is not a grocery tax, but Reynolds Brown's bill is. There will be no escaping her 15-cent container tax in supermarkets. A six-pack of Deer Park water will cost 90 cents more under Brown's bill. So will cans and containers of orange juice, cranberry juice and energy drinks.

You name it, it will be taxed. Now that's a grocery tax.

Also, Reynolds Brown's analysis says her bill will raise $64 million, not enough to do the job.

Her bill is thought to have the support of the beverage industry as a lesser-of-two-evils alternative to the sugary-drink tax.

Council has two choices: It can help the city's children who would benefit enormously from quality pre-K or it can bow before the beverage industry.

It cannot have it both ways. So, summon up your courage, Council and do the right thing.