Will soda tax sour Philly mayor’s chances at re-election?

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney
Getty Images

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature accomplishment is controversial — and a special-interest group it affects is spending big money trying to knock him out of office.

Under Kenney, the City Council enacted a tax on sweetened soda in January 2017. The 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax, which is levied on distributors, funds pre-kindergarten classes, community schools and Rebuild, a $500 million program to renovate public spaces.

Kenney’s two challengers in the May 21 Democratic mayoral primary, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, oppose the tax. A new poll shows that a majority of Philadelphians do too.

The American Beverage Association, which spent $16.2 million from 2016 to 2018 to fight the tax, sees an opening: It spent $408,000 last month to air commercials critical of Kenney’s program, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. On Apr. 23, WHYY reported that the beverage-industry group had spent $604,000 overall on ads attacking Kenney and the tax.

The group has also started campaigning against City Council members who voted for the tax. An ABA-funded TV ad spotlights the city’s $368 million budget surplus in 2018, arguing that the city could afford to pay for the social programs without the “unfair beverage tax that hits working families the hardest.” It implores viewers to “tell City Council to stand up to the mayor” and end the tax.

As nationwide obesity rates continue to climb, public health advocates say the tax is worthwhile and has been effective. They point to a new study that shows the tax has reduced the consumption of sugary drinks. Sales of sweetened beverages fell 51 percent at Philadelphia chain food retailers during the first year under the tax, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Tuesday. (Sales increased 24 percent outside the city, leaving consumption at a net negative.)

But some community leaders object to the tax, saying that it unfairly impacts lower-income families and people of color. Late last year, a group of 20 black clergy came out against the tax. A poll released last Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trust found that 71 percent of black respondents disapproved of the tax, the Philadelphia Tribune reported. Overall, 65 percent of Philadelphians disapproved of the tax; 31 percent approved.

It’s unclear if the tax will be a wedge issue that costs Kenney the Democratic nomination. An ABA-funded poll showed that 59 percent of Democratic voters opposed the tax, but they were evenly split on whether Kenney should be re-elected: 43 percent to 43 percent.

In rebuttal, spokespeople for Kenney’s campaign have emphasized the programs the tax is funding. “We fully expected the multibillion-dollar beverage industry to pour big money into this election,” Kenney spokesman Harrison Morgan told the Inquirer. “They’re more concerned with their profit margins than the children of Philadelphia.”

More from our Sister Sites