$5.4 million in ads devoted to Philly soda tax battle this year

Listen 0:00
Image of PHL pre-K students from recent Bloomberg television ad (image via Bloomberg)

Image of PHL pre-K students from recent Bloomberg television ad (image via Bloomberg)

Some arguments, it seems, are never over. While Philadelphia’s controversial sweetened beverage tax is on the books and being collected, critics and proponents are still spending millions on ads to convince the public it’s a good or bad idea.

Though the tax was enacted in June of last year, the warring parties have spent more than $5.4 million this year on ads touting or condemning the penny-and-a-half per ounce levy, according to filings with the City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics and other disclosures.

For context, if you devoted $5 million to expanding prekindergarten in Philadelphia, one of the main uses for the beverage tax, it would fund pre-K for nearly 600 kids. The city is subsidizing about 2,000 seats right now.

The American Beverage Association’s filings under the city lobbying disclosure law show the group spent just under $3 million between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year on “indirect communications” — ads aimed at persuading the public that the tax is a bad idea.

The ads, produced by the “Axe the Bev Tax” coalition, feature working-class Philadelphians — including a soda sales rep and a hoagie shop owner — who say they’ve been harmed by the tax.

The American Beverage Association is also the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the tax, which is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Axe the Bev Tax spokesman Anthony Campisi said the ads are important, even though the tax is established law.

“We’re hoping that, at some point, we can get this tax to go away, and that could be [through] the legal strategy we’re pursuing. That could be legislation in the future,” Campisi said. “But the only way you get there is by making it very clear to the public and to our elected representatives that this tax is bad public policy.”

Campisi said Mayor Jim Kenney uses his “bully pulpit” to speak in favor of the tax and the programs it funds, and opponents need to invest in getting their point of view before the public.

Action/reaction

Pro-beverage tax ads began appearing in the spring and summer..

Philadelphians for a Fair Future, the group that pushed hard for passage of the tax last year, spent $153,000 between April and June, according to its report filed under the lobbying disclosure law.

“Our activities have been mostly in response to the continuing onslaught of public communications that you see from the anti-beverage tax folks from the soda industry,” said spokesman Kevin Feeley.

When the group advocated passage of the tax last year, it had funding from wide range of sources — including unions, Kenney’s campaign fund, the American Heart Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an enthusiastic supporter of soda taxes.

Philadelphians for a Fair Future’s ads this year were funded entirely by Bloomberg, who spent far more running ads of his own in Philadelphia this year.

The Bloomberg ads feature endearing images of young children in prekindergarten programs.

“This September, kids who couldn’t afford pre-K before will walk into classrooms all over Philadelphia, joining the many who graduated in June, thanks to the soda tax,” an announcer says in one ad.

Bloomberg did not file a report disclosing its ad buys with the city, but a spokesman Howard Wolfson said in an interview that Bloomberg spent $2.3 million between mid-July and mid-September on production and placement of the ads.

Wolfson said Bloomberg’s attorneys concluded a lobbyist filing in Philadelphia wasn’t required under the statute.

“We’re not trying to influence legislation, we’re not attempting to pass a law,” Wolfson said. “We’re just trying to educate the public on the benefits of the tax.”

(My reading of the lobbyists disclosure law doesn’t yield a clear answer on whether Bloomberg should have filed, and the city Board of Ethics won’t offer an opinion on a specific party’s obligation.)

Bloomberg has also committed up to $5 million to support a soda tax in Cook County, Illinois, which has drawn fierce opposition and may face a repeal vote by the Cook County Board this fall.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.