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Pennsylvania's Supreme Court To Hear Arguments In Soda Tax Case


All right, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court is going to hear oral arguments today in a case that will determine whether Philadelphia can keep taxing soda and other sweetened drinks. The city passed that tax in 2016. Public health groups applauded it as a way to help curb obesity, but then the beverage industry sued. NPR's Allison Aubrey has more.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When Philadelphia imposed a 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened drinks, people noticed the price hikes.

JACK HOWARD: Before the sugar tax, I mean, I was drinking iced tea and the sodas.

AUBREY: That's Jack Howard (ph), who works as a commercial painter in the city. The cost of a 16-ounce drink at the neighborhood deli where he likes to grab lunch is now about $2.50, so he says he's cut way back.

HOWARD: Two-fifty every day adds up over the course of a week, so I try to stick with water now.

AUBREY: He says he's saving about 50 bucks a month, and he thinks it's good for his diet. Howard is not alone. A recent study from Drexel University found that since the tax took effect, residents of Philly are about 40 percent less likely to drink sweetened beverages every day compared to people in other cities. Doug Blanke is the director of the Public Health Law Center. He argues that Philly's soda tax makes sense, given all the evidence linking excessive consumption to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

DOUG BLANKE: This tax is one of the leading strategies for addressing the problems that soda and sugary drinks cause.

AUBREY: Blanke joined with the American Heart Association and a bunch of public health groups to file a friend of the court brief. They make the case that the city of Philadelphia acted within its authority when it imposed the tax.

BLANKE: Taxing products or transactions that harm people is one of the most basic tools of any government. And it's as old and as legally settled as government itself.

AUBREY: Think about taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. Blanke points back to the period after the American Revolution when Alexander Hamilton cited fiscal and health justifications for taxing whiskey. In the case to be heard today, the beverage industry seeks to invalidate Philadelphia's soda tax. One of the industry's legal arguments is that the city's tax on beverages conflicts with Pennsylvania's state sales tax. And outside the courtroom, the industry makes the case that the soda tax hurts small businesses. Here's Anthony Campisi of the Ax the Philly Bev Tax coalition.

ANTHONY CAMPISI: I think that this tax has been an economic disaster for Philadelphia.

AUBREY: Campisi says some residents of Philadelphia now go to the suburbs to shop to avoid the higher prices. So he says it's not clear whether overall people have cut back on sweetened drinks. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSS OF AURA'S "DIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.