Free lunches are hard to turn down for a city staring into the fiscal abyss. As it faces dwindling revenues and the increased demand for public services that usually accompanies a recession, Philadelphia, like most other U.S. cities, is looking for new ways to make a buck. However, with unemployment above 10 percent and a fear of providing even more excuses for businesses and more-affluent residents to flee for the suburbs, the city is not inclined to hike income and property taxes.
Spurred by this bleak outlook, Mayor Michael Nutter, like politicians in New York, California, and a host of other places, has hit upon an ingenious idea. Given that, among its other problems, Philadelphia is wrestling with a growing obesity epidemic, why not kill two birds with one stone and tax sodas? While taxing cheesesteaks or Tastykakes might lead to protests up and down Broad Street, a few additional cents’ tax on each soda sold in the city holds the prospect of expanding the budget while trimming waistlines.
This double-dividend argument has been used before by public finance scholars in other contexts, from fossil fuels to alcohol. While almost all taxes are problematic because, in the process of raising revenues, they discourage a desirable activity, taxing “bad” activities supposedly generates cash flow while discouraging the underlying activity.
Unfortunately, like many free lunches, the health benefit from a soda tax is a mirage. Not only is the tax unlikely to generate much revenue as soda drinkers substitute away from the sugary beverages, most of the evidence suggests that they will substitute toward consuming other foods and beverages that are just as bad or worse for their health.