Apr 132017

Wash. D.C. Washington Post

Contrary to the claims of advocates, America’s first soda tax was not a success. Soda taxes are much in the news of late, as lawmakers from Washington to West Virginia debate the newly popular policy tool as a means of ramping up revenue and cutting soda consumption. But all the hype leaves out some important context; Congress passed a national soda tax 100 years ago. And–although the motivation then was very different than it is now–the measure proved both ineffective and unpopular.

The first soda taxes had nothing to do with health. Congress levied a nationwide tax on soda-makers during World War one, hoping to raise funds for the war effort. In the next year’s revenue act, Congress also approved a measure that directly taxes soda consumers. The taxes were short lived and quickly forgotten.

In West Virginia, which is currently considering a one cent per ounce soda tax, Gov. Jim Justice has explicitly pitched the measure as a way to fill the state’s $500 million budget deficit. In philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney has defended his City’s soda tax by citing the $12.3 million it raised in two months for public parks and pre-K programs. The World War one soda taxes are far from a perfect proxy for today’s efforts. For starters, they were utterly unconcerned about health and had one, narrower purpose: The U.S. joined World War one in April 1917, and the government needed novel ways to add to its war chest.

Modern soda taxes are designed to bring in revenue and discourage wasteful consumption. Nowhere has that been more obvious than in Philadelphia, which is currently in the midst of a lawsuit over its soda tax. The tax–1.5 cents per ounce of sugar sweetened beverage–was pitched to voters by Kenney as a necessary measure to fund early childhood education.

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