At a recent health session at UNC Charlotte’s uptown campus, a noted nutritionist and obesity researcher laid out a pretty good case for avoiding sugary drinks, which she called the single-worst contributor to childhood obesity in America. So when I read this week that Philadelphia (my home in another life) had imposed a first-in-the-nation tax on sodas and most sweet drinks, I wasn’t sure whether I should rejoice for the city’s black children or wring my hands in political frustration.
If the tax (1.5 cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened and diet beverages) leads to fewer unhealthy, fat kids, then many of us might call it all worthwhile. Plus, as an added sweetener (pun intended), the city’s anticipated windfall from the tax – about $91 million a year – will be spent on expanding pre-kindergarten programs in the city; creating community schools; improving parks, recreation centers and libraries; and offering a tax credit for businesses that sell healthy beverages, according to Philly.com.
Who could oppose such a win-win idea?
Well, despite my best efforts to silence it, the small part of my being that screams libertarian can.
Is it wise for a city to use its taxing authority to discourage certain behaviors – in this case the consumption of a product that’s legal and desired by millions? And equally important, will the soda tax, well-meaning though it is, even lead us to its intended effects?
According to Philly.com, the tax could increase the price of a 12-ounce can of soda by 18 cents ($1 for a 2-liter container and $2.16 for a 12-pack). The tax would apply to sodas, bottled or canned teas, sports drinks, flavored waters, bottled coffees and energy drinks.
It should not be lost on those who supports this tax that many of the syrupy drinks listed above are consumed in disproportionate quantities by people of color. So in other words, the tax that’s intended to save our children may end up being a financial levy on the very fat their bodies carry — and I doubt that, even then, they’ll even drink less of the sugary stuff; they’ll simply pay more to make themselves fat and ultimately unhealthy.
At the UNC Charlotte session, Professor Penny Gordon-Larson spoke at length about how, in communities of color, obesity is often more about socioeconomic factors and less about race, ethnicity and even personal habits. Will any of the money raised by Philadelphia’s soda tax be spent to research and address these complex causalities?
Critics of the Philadelphia tax, including the powerful American Beverage Association, have vowed to fight in court, labeling the tax unconstitutional. Meanwhile, elected officials in cities all over the United States are no doubt licking their chops with an eye toward replication. (Closer to home, Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia is proposing to restrict fast food restaurants opening near schools.)
Childhood obesity is no joke, and the health problems related to this national epidemic are well documented. I’m just not sure that a tax on sweet drinks is the most effective way to address the problem.
Glenn H. Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro. Email editor@qcitymetro.