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Soda Sellers Battle For Hearts And Minds In Philly


The battle over Philadelphia's soda tax is far from over, even though it went into effect back in January. As Katie Colaneri from member station WHYY reports, the soda industry is still fighting the tax in court and in the court of public opinion.

KATIE COLANERI, BYLINE: The soda industry's anti-tax campaign is still going strong with radio and YouTube ads, an Ax The Bev Tax Facebook page where customers are encouraged to post their receipts showing how much they paid. And many store owners like Jeff Brown have put the tax right there on the price tags that line the shelves. The tax is almost as prominent as the price itself.

JEFF BROWN: So we say Philly beverage tax recovery, and the price includes the tax and the price we usually would charge.

COLANERI: Brown owns seven ShopRites and Fresh Grocers in Philadelphia, including this one right on the border of the suburbs. He says overall, business is down 15 percent because the tax is driving people to shop outside the city.

BROWN: I might be able to do better financially if I hid it. I don't feel right about that.

COLANERI: At first, he insists that while he is against the tax, he's only doing this to be more transparent with his customers. As we talk, Brown is standing near a new section he's created in one of his stores. The shelves are stocked with untaxed items, things like powdered drink mixes and bottled water. A giant sign hanging from the ceiling says no soda tax in a red circle with a slash through it.

Do big signs like that, though, kind of feed into it? Like, you're almost not letting your customers forget about it.

BROWN: Yeah. I'd say that's fair. That's fair because I don't think they should forget about it because it's harming them.

COLANERI: And customers are noticing.

RASHAN ABDUL-KAREEM: I don't know why. Like, they'll do these things and it'll show you how much tax is being put on there, but then they'll claim that it's a sale.

COLANERI: I met Rashan Abdul-Kareem in the soda aisle of Brown's store. He points to a Monster energy drink that's on sale for 53 cents off, but the price tag says a 24 cent beverage tax is still included in that sale price.

ABDUL-KAREEM: They're rubbing it in your face. They're saying, look, we're ripping you off and ha, ha, you're still going to buy it.

COLANERI: That outrage is what Larry Ceisler is banking on. Ceisler runs the Philadelphia PR firm hired by the American Beverage Association. He won't say how much the anti-tax campaign is costing, but lobbying reports show the association has spent more than $2 million since the tax took effect.

LARRY CEISLER: There's two ways the tax can go away. It's either going to be ruled unconstitutional by the courts or council can repeal it. So we're hoping by keeping the pressure up, we are able to facilitate one of those two outcomes.

COLANERI: While Philadelphia's city council is unlikely to repeal it, a panel of Pennsylvania appeals court judges is considering a lawsuit by the soda industry to end the tax. Meanwhile, Kelly Brownell says it's sending a bigger message.

KELLY BROWNELL: The soda taxes are public enemy number one for the soda industry.

COLANERI: Brownell is the dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, and he supports soda taxes as a public health measure. He says the fight reminds him of cigarette taxes, which made their way to every state by 1969 despite the efforts of tobacco companies to stop them.

BROWNELL: And I think we see that same history playing out with the soda industry. Every time they lose - and it's now been a number of times in a number of places around the world - it becomes harder and harder for them to fight these off because places begin to see it as a norm.

COLANERI: Since Philadelphia passed its soda tax, four other U.S. cities have followed suit, although Santa Fe residents recently voted down a measure there. But Brownell thinks other elected officials will look to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who pushed the measure as a revenue generator for popular projects. So far, it's brought in almost $20 million for an expansion of subsidized pre-K and major renovations at city parks, rec centers and libraries. For NPR News, I'm Katie Colaneri in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katie Colaneri
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