Nutter: Soda tax 'not on radar'

Mayor says it's "wait and see" whether he'll call again for the beverage levy that Council has rejected twice.

Posted: March 12, 2012


 


 


 They thought it was dead.

Then, like the killer in a late-night slasher movie, it rose again.

It's . . . The Soda Tax!

It was declared stiff after a legislative defeat in 2010, but Mayor Nutter resuscitated the 2-cents-per-ounce levy in 2011, only to have Council drive a stake in it again.

Although the mayor left the sugary-drinks fee out of his 2012 budget address on Thursday, there is no guarantee the tax - dreaded for drawing politicians and special-interest groups into bitter warfare - won't return.

Technically, Nutter did not introduce any tax-increase measures Thursday - with the notable exception of a new property assessment system with the added benefit of taking another $90 million out of taxpayers' pockets.

But he didn't propose any increases in last year's budget, either. It wasn't until after the May primary election, when the School District asked for help closing a $629 million budget gap, that Nutter turned again to soda.

Asked what he would do in similar circumstances this year (the School District is frantically trying to balance its books), Nutter said only: "We need to wait and see."

"I'm not going to try to predict that far into the future," he said in an interview a week before his address. "At the moment, the sugar-sweetened beverage tax is not on my radar screen."

To opponents, the mayor's "no new taxes" pledge is not definitive enough to rule out soda tax, part III.

"The words were carefully chosen," Councilman Bill Green noted.

Larry Ceisler, spokesman for a coalition of bottling companies, retailers, and union members who opposed the soda tax, said his group would remain vigilant.

"We understand that circumstances change," he said. "This coalition has always been of the mind this tax could come back in one way or another."

Although the coalition would continue "to educate Council as to the negative impact" of the tax, Ceisler said he took Nutter at his word.

"He says it's not on his radar screen; you hope it's in the rearview mirror," he said.

Tax or no tax, for the moment it's a war without end.

"The bottom line for me is obesity, and being overweight is still a major challenge in this city," Nutter said. "Soda has no nutritional value. . . . All I've ever talked about is [drinking soda in] moderation."

In June, Nutter is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the first Sugary Drinks Summit in Washington. The two-day conference is sponsored by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"This is a major issue, and I'm not going to allow myself to be boxed as just a soda-tax guy," he said. "The companies have to accept a certain level of responsibility and take some action."

Beverage-industry advocates say they have done just that. Among other measures, they cited a program to remove full-calorie sodas from schools nationwide, replacing them with lower-calorie and more nutritious options.

Locally, a foundation set up by the American Beverage Association provided Children's Hospital of Philadelphia with a $10 million grant to treat and research obesity.

Children's Hospital asked the city last year to team up on an antiobesity education program, but the administration turned down the offer because of the source of the funding.

Nutter announced Thursday that Children's Hospital would join the city on a major health-center project in South Philadelphia, but he hasn't budged on the antiobesity offer.

"We're not in a position to enter into that kind of partnership with them," he said.

In the last two years, states and cities worldwide have explored soda taxes as a means to balance budgets decimated by the recession. The beverage industry - which in 2008 won repeal of a soda tax in Maine - waged a counteroffensive. No such taxes were passed in the United States, aside from one in Washington state that was later repealed. Colorado did remove soda's exemption from sales taxes.

In Philadelphia, opponents launched advertising campaigns, held rallies and protests, and stepped up their political contributions.

The city, meanwhile, used federal stimulus money to begin its own antiobesity campaign - including a commercial still airing featuring a mother distraught over her chubby, soda-drinking son's weight.

The beverage industry claims the city's ad campaign amounted to lobbying - an impermissible use of the federal grant money.

The American Beverage Association in 2011 hit Philadelphia and several other cities with requests for records on how federal money was used to craft anti-soda messages.

The requests in Philadelphia yielded several 2010 e-mails from Department of Public Health officials describing the urgency of getting advertisements out before the Council soda-tax vote.

In one e-mail to an advertising agency executive, Giridhar Mallya, Health Department director of policy and planning, recommended focusing print and online ads on "the harms of sugar-sweetened beverages."

"We may also want to target media in certain Council districts," he wrote, noting the date of the Council vote.

"The documents really speak for themselves," said Chris Gindlesperger, American Beverage Association spokesman. "At a time when the city claims to lack resources, the city spends millions on attack ads instead of on programs that would have a meaningful impact on the community."

Nutter called the lobbying accusation "a bunch of crap" and said the soda-tax opponents were "some of the biggest crybabies I've been associated with."

None of the ads mention a soda tax or legislation, he said.

"They mounted a multimillion-dollar ad campaign spreading untruths," Nutter said. "And they want to complain when we use money from the federal government to address a serious health issue?"

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered the grant money and monitored the spending.

As currently situated, several Council members said, Nutter would suffer a third defeat if he revived the soda tax again.

Even supporters, such as Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. were happy to declare the tax dead. He said last year's fight was the most contentious of his first term.

Last year, Jones let Nutter use his office to lobby Council members during a decisive, marathon session. He remembers lobbyists from each side lining the halls outside Council chambers to catch the members coming and going.

"It was like a nature film where the bisons run out one at a time," he said, "and the lions were taking them down."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or @troyjgraham on Twitter.

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