Push for sugary drinks tax in Philadelphia gets boost from Bloomberg

A soda truck unloads at 10th and Filbert streets. (Gene Sonn/WHYY)

A soda truck unloads at 10th and Filbert streets. (Gene Sonn/WHYY)

An effort to pass a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in Philadelphia is getting a boost from Michael Bloomberg.

The wealthy former mayor of New York City is chipping in for an ad campaign to promote the proposed 3-cents-per-ounce tax as a way to pay for early childhood education and other initiatives.

Philadelphians for a Fair Future, the pro-tax nonprofit, will not disclose how much Bloomberg is giving to the effort, but said the total ad buy is worth $825,000. A second funding source is the Action Now Initiative, a nonprofit bankrolled by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold. 

The commercial (which can be seen here) will run on broadcast television for at least the next three weeks starting Thursday. The campaign will also run radio ads. 

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It’s far less than the more than $2.6 million the soda industry has shelled out so far for ads against the tax, but there could be more cash coming.

Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson said the former mayor is watching how the debate plays out here and that investing in Philadelphia’s battle could have a bigger payoff.

“I don’t think there’s any question that if Philadelphia passes the tax, it will have an impact on other places,” Wolfson said. “And if Philadelphia goes ahead and does this, there will be other cities that wil be encouraged to initiate their own efforts at the local level.”

Bloomberg is credited with helping to pass a similar measure in Berkeley, California, after failing to ban large sodas in New York City while he was mayor.

While Bloomberg’s support for these measures is motivated by public health concerns — and not necessarily funding pre-K — Mayor Jim Kenney says his backing will help level the playing field.

“We’re up against 1-percenter billionaires who are willing to spend untold money to save their corporate profits,” he said. “I welcome the help.”

Anthony Campisi, a spokesman for the industry-backed coalition fighting the tax, criticized Kenney for turning to wealthy “outsiders who are pursuing an ideology and trying to foist that ideology onto Philadelphia families.”

According to lobbying reports filed with the city’s ethics board late Monday, the American Beverage Association — the industry trade group funding the opposition — spent more than $1.4 million fighting the tax through March 31. The majority went to radio and print ads, but that figure also includes about $20,000 in “direct spending” on firms Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy, LLC and Hazzouri and Associates, which lobbied members of City Council and the mayor. 

The report does not reflect the association’s more recent spending on TV ads, which began airing in April.

Philadelphians for a Fair Future did not file a lobbying report for the first quarter because the group did not spend money at that time, said spokesman Kevin Feeley. 

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