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Wall Street Journal - May 26, 2016

Sugary Tax Ideas With a Bitter Aftertaste

Philadelphia’s plan for a tax on soft drinks does not go down well with Joe Queenan. A tax on kale and other alternatives

The City of Brotherly Love is gearing up to go to war with the soft-drink industry, seeking to impose a three-cent-per-ounce tax on soda. Other cities have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to raise taxes on sugary beverages to wean consumers from the fattening drinks. Supporters in Philadelphia share that aim but also have cleverly devised the soda tax so that its proceeds would pay for prekindergarten and other civic programs.

The planned levy, which seems to be popular with locals and will go to the city council for a vote in June, would nearly double the price of cans of Coke and Pepsi if bought at a supermarket. The beverage industry argues that such a measure is not fair to the soda-loving public, nor to the industry itself, and has spent substantial sums of money to kill the legislation.

As a person who rarely drinks soda, I have no skin in this game. But the philosophical underpinnings of the proposed tax do concern me, for they seem to lead to a slippery slope that could encourage politicians to impose an even wider array of taxes to discourage self-destructive behavior and pay for underfunded projects.

One issue is fairness. Why is the city imposing a tax on soda but not on the Delaware Valley’s beloved Tastykakes line of snacks? Why arepeople who stuff their faces with Mars Bars allowed to go their merry way? Why doesn’t the city tax fruit juices or any and all brands of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream? And why, oh why, doesn’t it tax those revered Italian ices, as odious a dessert concoction as mankind has ever devised?

If the city’s object is to fund worthwhile projects, then why not extend the tax to other probably hazardous foodstuffs? Mimosas aren’t good for your health, especially bottomless ones. Popcorn drenched in butter isn’t good for your health. In fact, butter itself isn’t exactly a health food.

Taxing sugary beverages targets the young and the poor. That isn’t fair. If the city wants to raise cash to fix potholes or upgrade antiquated subway stations or hire more police, then why not tax gourmet cupcakes, croissants and granola. Impose a levy on designer macaroons.

And why stop with foods that are bad for us? I’d love to see a tax designed to deflate the sanctimony of the health-minded. Let’s hit them where it hurts and tax kale. By making them pay more for kale, and maybe even arugula, Philadelphia could rebuild its desperately underachieving public school system by Flag Day.

Outraged grocers and labor unions have organized protests against the proposed soda tax. But why have many well-heeled residents remained silent? My suspicion is, if the city imposed a three-cent-per-per-ounce tax on Frappuccinos and iced chai, the streets would run white with latte.

Is the Supreme Court going to weigh in on this? The Cato Institute? Donald Trump? Bernie? If the soda tax succeeds in Philadelphia, will it then spread from Fall River to Fresno? Will certain states—say, New Jersey—offer sanctuary to soda lovers, allowing them free rein to openly drink sweet beverages without fear of taxation. And will seditious Philadelphians be arrested for smuggling in root beer from other states?

If Philadelphia is serious about raising money for its prekindergarten programs, one obvious solution is to impose a three-cent-per ounce tax on one of the deadliest comestibles known to man. Something that has little or no nutritional value, that’s bad for your physique, that’s bad for your heart.

The Philly Cheese Steak.

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