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June 30, 2017

Opinion: As soda debate taxes our patience, drink in these truths

Opinion Soda Tax
06302017_City_Hall_Soda_Illo PhillyVoice Illustration/Credits: Somrakjendee; trekandsho


I hope the arrival of summer will bring a refreshing pause. For years, Philadelphians have endured the harangues of partisans on all sides of the soda tax debate.

From one side we hear that soda is unhealthy so we need to make it more expensive to discourage people from buying soda – but not so expensive that nobody buys soda because we want to use soda-tax revenues to pay for things that some want.


Brett Mandel

From the other side, we hear that making soda more expensive will decrease demand for soda, which will mean that those in the soda-supply business might not make enough money to continue to employ soda suppliers – and that it's not fair to tax anyone unless we tax everyone.

Maybe I've missed a nuance or two in the debate. The arguments on both sides have become clichés and it's time we drink in some fundamental truths.

The thing about clichés is that each one has a fundamental truth that has merited repeating over and over until we are tired of hearing it. One can find a cliché to underscore any position or belief and there is almost always a cliché that applies to both sides of an argument. We know that he who hesitates is lost but we are counseled to look before we leap. The trick, therefore, is not the parroting of the cliché, but in choosing which cliché to mind.

The choice of a New Generation

When it comes to the soda tax, the public-program proselytizers would have us embrace the cliché, "the ends justify the means." Sure, it's lousy tax policy that will have a negative economic impact. Sure, it's an uncertain revenue stream that is already being tapped to fill other holes in the city budget. Sure, it's a regressive levy that will place a heavy burden on the same low-income residents who have been hit with increases in the taxes on sales, cigarettes, and liquor-by-the drink. But, look at the cool programs we can fund with soda-tax cash.

The bazillionaire beverage barons would have us embrace the cliché, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Sure, we could spare a few bucks from our bubbles and this won't put us out of business. Sure, we know our products may be fun to drink, but we know they are unhealthy as a habit. Sure, we know that we are hiding behind mom-and-pop store owners and unionized delivery people to protect significant soda profits. But, consider what will happen if we continue down this tax-and-spend path.

It's the real thing

Philadelphia elected officials made a political choice to impose the tax on soda. Maybe politicians in the Pennsylvania General Assembly will make a different political choice. Maybe the soda tax will lead to a political upheaval in the next election for mayor and city council.

Like the Pepsi challenge, there is no righteous choice in this debate – only a political one.

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Brett Mandel is Democratic committee person in the 8th Ward/28th Division and former director of financial and policy analysis under former City Controller Jonathan Saidel. He is a lifelong Philadelphian.