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Health groups, African-American Chamber of Commerce defend Philly ‘soda tax’

 Mayor Jim Kenney speaks after signing into law a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages at City Hall in Philadelphia in June.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks after signing into law a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages at City Hall in Philadelphia in June. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A coalition of groups including the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania has filed legal briefs supporting Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s tax on sweetened drinks.

The friend-of-the-court filings expand the allies Kenney has recruited to support the “soda tax,” which is helping to finance expanded pre-K and improvements to city parks, recreation centers and libraries.

Critics have contended the 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax would primarily be borne by low-income shoppers.

Michael Banks, who heads the African-American Chamber of Commerce, said paying an extra $1 for a 2-liter bottle of soda right now means a payoff later. 

“I see this as an investment,” Banks said. “It may be a little bit painful up front. But on the back end, you get the chance to reap the dividends. It’s no different if you have a 401(k), or if you’re putting money in the bank.”

“Those schools you’re going to invest in, those kindergartens,”  he continued. “One day they’re going to grow up, and one day they’re going to be your customer. So I better start investing in them today.”

Others that filed supportive briefs to the court include attorneys for Berkeley, California, where the first-ever tax on sugary drinks was passed; the American Medical Association; the American Heart Association; the International Municipal Lawyers Association; and the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.

Lawyers for the AMA said research has linked soda and other sweet drinks to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

“Philadelphia, suffering from these very public health problems, acted within its authority in placing a nonduplicative tax on the distribution of a truly dangerous product,” attorney Michael Quirk wrote on behalf of the AMA.

The new endorsements come on the heels of the tax’s next legal battle in front of a panel of Commonwealth Court appeals judges. Oral arguments are scheduled April 3 in Pittsburgh, where the court is meeting for its April docket. 

In December, a state trial judge dismissed the beverage industry’s attempt to dismantle the tax.

More than 30 other state lawmakers last month filed amicus briefs asserting that Kenney’s tax is unlawful and regressive. Therefore, they argued, the appeals court should strike it down. 

“It is not unrealistic to expect that next year there will be a ‘candy tax’ based upon volume in Philadelphia, a sweetened beverage tax based upon volume in Harrisburg, and a ‘snack/cookie tax’ based upon volume in another cash-strapped city,” the lawmakers wrote.

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