Philadelphia became the first major American city with a soda tax on Thursday despite a multimillion-dollar campaign by the beverage industry to block it.
The City Council gave final approval to a 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sugary and diet beverages.
Only Berkeley, California, had a similar law. Soda tax proposals have failed in more than 30 cities and states in recent years. Such plans are typically criticized as disproportionately affecting the poor, who are more likely to consume sugary drinks.
But Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney sold the council on the idea with a plan to spend most of the estimated $90 million in new tax revenue next year to pay for prekindergarten, community schools and recreation centers.
“Thanks to the tireless advocacy of educators, parents, rec center volunteers and so many others, Philadelphia made a historic investment in our neighborhoods and in our education system today,” the mayor said after the vote.
He said the new tax and how it will be used “will help improve the education, health and prosperity of children and families all across our city for years to come.”
The tax is a hard-fought win for the city. The soda industry spent millions of dollars in advertising against the proposal, arguing that the tax would be costly to consumers. The plan also attracted national attention and dollars, with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Texas billionaires John and Laura Arnold, advocates for less consumption of sugary drinks, funding ads in support.
Many communities where soda tax proposals have failed sought it as a way to discourage consumers from buying sugary beverages for health reasons.
The case could certainly be made for a healthier Philadelphia, where more than 68 percent of adults and 41 percent of children are overweight or obese. But Kenney focused on public interest over public health in making the argument to tax sugary drinks.
He said last week that Americans generally reject other people telling them what’s healthy for them, so his administration tried to stay away from that. He said any health benefits coming from the tax are just a bonus.
The tax will enter into the fiscal budget July 1, but collection won’t start until January 1.
Groups of pre-K students clustered outside City Hall on Thursday doing geyser experiments with soda and Mentos, and they gathered in the hallway near chambers with headbands reading “Pre-K rocks!”
The No Philly Grocery Tax group had a big display on the plaza with stacks of drinks and graphs showing how much consumers would pay if the tax passed.
The soda industry is expected to sue.