Philly drink tax ‘earthquake’ may rumble in other cities

    The backers of Philadelphia's sweetened drinks tax are ready to take the fight to other cities -- despite industry and individual opposition. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    The backers of Philadelphia's sweetened drinks tax are ready to take the fight to other cities -- despite industry and individual opposition. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    A day after Philadelphia City Council passed a new tax on soda and other sweetened drinks to fund pre-K expansion and other initiatives, the effort’s most powerful backers are looking at other cities across the country.

    Billionaire Michael Bloomberg lost a statewide bid to ban large servings of soda in New York when he was mayor. In Philadelphia, he personally spent $1.6 million to support the tax on drinks in the face of nearly $5 million spent by the soda industry to try to defeat it.

    In a call with reporters Friday, Bloomberg’s close advisers described how the anti-soda crusader will now begin backing efforts in San Francisco and Oakland, California, this year to impose levies on sugary drinks to advance public health.

    Kevin Feeley, spokesman for Bloomberg’s Philadelphians for a Fair Future, noted the counterintuitive nature of their messaging campaign: Though Bloomberg’s interest was to discourage people from consuming soda, which has been linked to obesity and diabetes, the focus of the Philadelphia campaign was on the initiatives the new revenue would support.

    “Tie the tax to programs that matter to residents, and members of City Council, if you have the same challenge that we had,” Feeley said, speaking proverbially to officials in other cities interested in pursuing a soda tax. “And if you do that, you can build a broad-based coalition that really is strong enough to withstand the most aggressive and well-funded campaign and opposition.”

    Berkley, California, was the first city to pass a soda tax. Chicago and Philadelphia were the first big cities to do so. Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s senior adviser, said passing the tax in a city as large and diverse as Philadelphia will embolden other big cities eyeing similar levies.

    “If Berkeley was a tremor, Philadelphia was an earthquake,” Wolfson said. “And we think there will be more earthquakes going forward. And we will be excited to stand with cities and mayors and community organizations to take on this fight. Because we think it’s the right fight, and that it’s a winnable fight.”

    The soda industry spent nearly $5 million in an attempt to derail the soda tax proposal, saying the tax discriminates by unfairly singling out one industry. Now, industry groups are vowing to defeat the tax through litigation, which could be filed as early as Monday after Mayor Jim Kenney signs the tax into law.

    Wolfson said he wouldn’t rule out helping Kenney administration’s defense of the tax in court.

    On Thursday, Kenney said he will likely bring in outside legal counsel to supplement the city’s own attorneys who say they are prepared to win in court.

    “We were invested enough in this issue to spend $1.6 million on it,” Wolfson said. “And, obviously, we would want it to sustain a legal challenge.”

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