A few weeks ago, we launched a survey to find out what Philadelphians really think—outside of the politics, the headache-inducing ads, the petitions, the posters—of Mayor Kenney’s proposed tax on sugary beverages. And almost 1,000 people responded—which in the world of surveys is as if citizens were coming out to vote in droves. (We can only dream.)
The results: 58.7 percent of Philadelphians support a tax on sugary beverages to help pay for universal pre-K, community schools and park renovations, among other things. Nearly 31 percent oppose it. If the tax passes, almost 35 percent said it would have a positive effect on their lives; 13 percent said it would have a negative effect. And more than half think it will have no effect on their lives at all—many because they simply don’t drink enough sweetened beverages to feel much impact on their wallets.
“Anything that’s good for children and for greater health promotion is good for EVERYONE. Not just me,” said one respondent who favored the tax.
“When Philly’s poorer children benefit, so will my child—the better supported his peers are, the richer his youth will be intellectually and emotionally,” said another. “When mamas can go back to work sooner bc childcare becomes an option, it is good for our economy and the lives of all women in our city. The more equal the footing, the better for all of us.”
The poll, conducted by Temple University Institute for Survey Research, was co-sponsored by ISR, The Citizen, Young Involved Philadelphia, the city’s Department of Public Health/Get Healthy Philly and the Philadelphia Food Trust. It went out to citizens who signed up for the Institute’s BeHeard℠ Philly, a project that aims to amass 10,000 Philadelphians to take regular surveys over the phone, through email or via text message. This survey is one ISR’s first, and the first in a series of collaborations with The Citizen.
Mayor Kenney’s proposed soda tax is still just a proposal. But the costly and caustic debate has heated up as City Council heads towards a budget vote next month. Leading up to the primary, it engulfed both Sanders (against) and Clinton (for); in recent days, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has put his weight—and money—behind supporting the tax. Meanwhile, the American Beverage Association has spent $1.5 million trying to fight the plan. No wonder the survey found that more than 50 percent of citizens know a lot about the tax.
Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of citizens—83.8 percent—said it is “very important” that all children in Philadelphia attend pre-K. Those who drink more sugary beverages favor the tax less than those who drink less of it. And, as is the common perception, the percentage of those who favor the tax rises dramatically with income. That speaks to a concern from many respondents that the poor—who would, after all, benefit the most from universal pre-K—would also suffer the most if the tax passes.
“I don’t drink sugary drinks on a regular basis, but I am a working class person who came from a life of poverty,” one respondent said. “I am not that far from falling back into poverty. All the taxes and increases of these taxes the city imposes on me and other Philadelphians, a majority of who live in poverty, only increases and maintains poverty in the city and increases the chances of someone like me falling back into poverty. The sugary drink/soda tax will harm instead of help the most vulnerable of Philadelphians who are mostly poor and live in food deserts.”
Said another, “What right does the government have in penalizing an individual for the style in which they chose to live? We live in a supposed free country and because you mayor deem sugar drinks unhealthy you want to tax it. It will end up only affecting the poorest in city as people with transportation will just go right outside the city as we do to get cigarettes.”
The survey seems to validate a similar poll then-Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney issued during his campaign, when 57 percent of Philadelphians said they would support a tax on sugary beverages to fill a budget gap in the school district. After his election, Kenney shifted the recipients of his proposed tax—but public opinion has stayed the same, despite a monumental effort on the part of both opponents and supporters. (“Do they just cancel each other out?” wonders ISR study director Nina Hoe.)
Also surprising: Only around 41 percent of Philadelphians self-reported as drinking sugary beverages—ranging from soda to fruit drinks to sports drinks—a few times per week. (Only 8 percent said they have them more than once per day.) Considering how often soda consumption is linked to the prevalence of obesity (and even diabetes) in this country, you might think that number would be much higher. (But, again: Self-reporting.)
Many of the respondents gave thoughtful answers about why a tax would affect their lives positively, negatively or not at all, reflecting the complexity of an issue that is often set up as an either/or: Either you support universal pre-K, or you oppose the soda tax. Those who hold both beliefs have no voice in this debate.
“Why not tax bottled water too? Though it may be a healthier alternative, it is a more consumed drink of people who have a more disposable income too. Some balance should be here where everyone should pay in,” one said.
“Soda as a staple of your diet is bad for you,” said another. “Any incentive to help me not purchase soda which I believe the price increase will, is a good thing. Knowing that the additional cost I am paying for soda is going to the good causes the city has proposed will honestly make me feel less bad than I currently do when I get a soda.”
Their voices matter. Your voice matters. City Council held the first public hearing on the soda tax last evening, with about 100 citizens lining up to speak, mostly in favor. There’s another scheduled for next Wednesday, May 11. The next opportunity for public testimony is currently scheduled for May 18.