Itemizing the debate

Based on the presence of 21 grams of sugar per 12-ounce serving, Powerade Orange figures to be a big generator of revenue for the city’s coffers.

Photo by Tina Garceau

Being a former mail carrier, Richie Panegrosso does not cause any clamor when confronting inclement weather of the nature that hit Philadelphia Saturday. Heading to Acme, 1901 Johnston St., that morning, though, the Girard Estate resident had plenty to gripe about over the City’s 1.5-cents-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax that took effect New Year’s Day.

“We know all about how some people take joy in saying four-letter words,” the 52-year-old said as he kicked snow from his boots. “Well, this city is in love with a three-letter one, tax, and, frankly, I’m sick of it, especially this new one, which I think is a complete ruse.”

Half the size of what Mayor Jim Kenney had been hoping to impose to fund expanded early childhood education; community schools; improvements to libraries, parks, and recreation centers; increased funding for the City’s pension fund; and an energy-efficient project for government buildings, the last two components having met City Council’s disapproval in June, the tax targets drinks containing a sugar-based sweetener, such as natural sugar and high fructose corn syrup, or an artificial enhancer. Though some beverages are spared the added cost, nearly 4,000 products, according to the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, are subject to it.

“I’ll probably make some enemies with this line of thinking because even though I am in favor of helping our children especially, I’m opposed to this hike,” Panegrosso, the father of twin 16-year-olds, said. “I’ve seen a list of what’s taxed and what’s not, and it looks as if they have raised the amount for stuff that they say is mostly bad for us, and they expect to make a ton of money off that? It’s an odd way, so to speak, to get people to take better care of themselves. When this fails to generate what they’re hoping for, I guess I should be ready for a property tax increase.”

The City of Philadelphia touts the tax as the crux of a five-year plan to generate $409.5 million. Roughly 75 percent of that would then assist the aforementioned beneficiaries, with additional spending, mentions of which did not meet the public’s ears or eyes when Kenney proposed the sweetened beverage tax, helping such causes as the payment of employee benefits, the financing of programs within Health and Human Services, and the distribution of funds to cultural institutions.

“That’s just it; there was no complete transparency,” Panegrosso said as he perused the Gatorade section, eventually selecting two G2 Grape 8 packs, which, with taxes, made the total tab $18.12.

While consumers have begun worrying about how to manage their purchases, Victor Uddin has come to fear for the future of his business, BD Convenience Store, 2654 S. Bancroft St.

“Nothing is really moving,” he said. “It’s been pretty problematic so far.”

The proprietor noted soda and sports drinks have been consistent sellers in his four years at the Marconi site but that sales have fallen 55 percent.

“That’s a big drop,” Uddin said. “I guess I have to rely on other stuff to sell to make up the difference.”

But other business owners are taking a give-back-to-the-community approach out of the controversial situation. Chris Fetfatzes and Heather Annechiarico, the husband-wife team behind South Philly-based restaurants Hawthornes, The Cambridge, and Tio Flores, were discussing it over coffee on Saturday morning while their son Leo, 3, ran around the house. Being the parents of two future students, with 1-year-old daughter Portland being the other, they decided to work out a special arrangement with the Andrew Jackson School by tracking and then matching the revenue from their sites’ sweetened beverage tax amounts to bolster programs at the Passyunk Square site. When asked why, Fetfatzes simply responded “because the school needs it.”

“The soda tax goes to the schools,” he said. “Let us do some good for the schools. It’s important.”

Fetfatzes added that the plan is to hand deliver regular checks to the Jackson treasurer, so it can be deposited directly into its operating account.

“It’s incredibly kind of them to do that,” Jackson School Principal Lisa Kaplan Kaplan said. “We hold monthly happy hours at Hawthornes, so I guess they felt a connection to our community. Our next one on Jan. 17 is going to have cocktails that all feature soda, so that’s a nice supplemental way to see generosity in action.”

Heading to the Fancy Brigade serenade Saturday evening, Jill Jimenez, with an 18.5-ounce Turkey Hill Iced Tea in hand, presented a counterargument to the anti-tax stance, finding the levy “the perfect remedy” for the metropolis’ financial crisis.

“I’ve had long discussions with people face-to-face and on social media about this new measure,” the Passyunk Square resident said. “The talks have usually ended with most people saying this will hurt the very people it is supposed to help, namely, low-income folks who will enroll their kids in pre-K programs and who often rely on the taxed items because they’re cheap, since it will likely keep them from buying the products at all, but I don’t see it that way. I think people are going to continue to buy what they want, and I hope some people even find it in their hearts to buy more because that will help their fellow Philadelphians and our parks, libraries, and rec centers.”

When another serenade-goer pointed out the unlikelihood of that, given families’ financial difficulties, Jimenez noted that “Stranger things have happened,” leading Linda Sanders to weigh in.

“There are people who are going to say ‘Oh, it’s just a few pennies here and there,’ but it’s not,” the Queen Village resident said. “This is just another lame way to use emotion to punish us for our nutritional habits. It should be on the distributors to take care of this. It’s not going to surprise me to hear that people are skipping town to get stuff. You just can’t continue to burden us.”

A Dec. 20 release from the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association validates Sanders’ point about the responsibilities facing distributors, who must make payments to the City on the 20th of each month, starting on Presidents’ Day.

A visit to the City of Philadelphia’s Public Health Department website notes that residents consume about 60 million gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages each year, a total that officials say plays an immense role in analyzing obesity data. Certainly not above enjoying an occasional bottle of Gatorade post-workout, Sam Evans went to ShopRite, 2301 W. Oregon Ave., Monday morning with only one item in mind, water.

“I’m that rare person, I suppose, who can see both sides,” the Southwest Philly resident said. “Is the City expecting for people to change their lifestyles? Is it hoping that they’re going to say, Yeah, this is where my tax dollars should be going’? I don’t know sometimes. Not all the stuff they’re taxing is a necessity, of course, like my Gatorade, but I do think we are giving this city enough. Maybe it misuses what comes in. On the other hand, who can fault a plan that wants to encourage kids to learn and people to stay healthy? Come to think of it, that’s odd. We’re taxing some undesirable things to make people healthier. Do I have that right?”

ShopRite is one of the local supermarkets that is including the itemized Philadelphia Beverage Tax recovery on shopping receipts. A 12-pack of Powerade Orange 12-ounce beverages selling for $5.99, ending up being $8.80 with the additional taxes. Acme, on the other hand, has incorporated the increased cost into the shelf price. While some will adjust to the increased shopping expense, one local resident sees it have a lingering negative impact.

“I’m going to play Nostradamus and say people are really going to be irked in the summertime. You look at what’s going up, and you can’t avoid that if you’re thirsty then, you’re going to have to pay up,” Evans said. SPR

Editor Bill Gelman contributed to this article.

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at

ShopRite locations decided to list the supplemental cost under the shelf price.

Photo by Tina Garceau