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Philadelphia passes soda tax after mayor rewrites playbook

Avoiding the Bloomberg trap

Bloomberg made public health a centerpiece of his tenure as New York City mayor between 2002 and 2013. He moved to limit smoking in parks and restaurants, ban transfats and require calorie counts posted in some restaurants.

On soda, he pushed for a tax, then a ban on soda purchases with food stamps, and finally a much-lampooned limit on the size of sugary drinks. His efforts were ultimately rejected, with critics decrying the moves toward a “nanny state.”

The strategy worked in Britain, where a new soft drinks levy was announced in March after officials emphasized the country’s obesity crisis, saying it cost the economy billions of pounds annually and was a huge burden on the state-funded health system.

That approach never worked in Philadelphia. Michael Nutter, the previous mayor, twice tried to pass a soda tax as a health initiative and as a way to plug a budget shortfall. He was unable to push it through the city council.

Kenney, who became Philadelphia’s mayor in January, had made a campaign pledge to provide universal pre-kindergarten, and he kept that issue as his focus. A spokeswoman said complex state laws on taxation made enacting a citywide soda tax the best option to raise revenue for that signature proposal.

Bloomberg personally contributed funding to support Philadelphia’s pro-tax campaigners.

Fizzing westward

Opponents of Philadelphia’s soda tax argued that the measure will disproportionately hurt the poor and prompt Philadelphians to travel to nearby suburbs to buy soda.

In Colorado, Boulder hopes to use soda tax revenue on health programs, and San Francisco and Oakland officials would recommend but not require funds raised to go toward obesity and diabetes prevention.

When Berkeley passed its soda tax in 2014, industry groups dismissed the measure as a fluke given the city’s largely white population and reputation as a hotbed for liberal measures.

But Philadelphia is the fifth-largest U.S. city, with 1.6 million people. “No one can trivialize it as they can trivialize Berkeley,” said Larry Tramutola, a California political strategist who worked on the Berkeley campaign and is currently leading the San Francisco and Oakland efforts.

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