Mayor Ed Murray’s soda-tax legislation led to criticism it was unfair because white and affluent people tend to drink more diet drinks. The mayor’s revised proposal lowers the tax rate slightly and adds diet soda.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is slightly reducing the per-ounce amount charged by his proposed soda tax while adding diet pop to the list of beverages covered by the tax.
Those are the main changes in the legislation the mayor is sending to the City Council on Thursday.
Under Murray’s initial plan, announced during his State of the City address in February, distributors of sugary drinks would have paid 2 cents per ounce.
The revised tax would cover sodas such as Coke and Pepsi, energy and sports drinks such as Red Bull and Gatorade, fruit drinks such as Sunny D, sweetened teas such as those sold by Arizona, and bottled coffees such as those sold by Starbucks.
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But unlike the initial plan, the new proposal would cover not only sugary drinks but all sweetened beverages, including diet drinks — beverages with noncaloric sweeteners.
And the tax on distributors would be 1.75 cents rather than 2 cents per ounce.
The changes were recommendations that emerged when staff from the mayor’s office and the office of Councilmember Tim Burgess studied disparate impacts the tax could have on people with low incomes and on people of color, according to Murray.
That work involved conversations with community advocates, public-health professionals and business owners, according to the mayor. After Murray’s initial announcement, some suggested the exclusion of beverages with artificial sweeteners would be unfair because affluent white people tend to consume more diet drinks.
The revised tax would be applied to all distributors, regardless of size, but would exclude 100 percent fruit juice, medicine, infant formula and milk-based products.
With respect to flavored, made-to-order coffee drinks such as lattes, Murray’s proposal is less clear. His initial plan exempted all “in-store prepared coffee beverages.” The revised tax would cover the syrups used in coffee beverages, with limited exceptions to be determined at a later date, a spokesman said.
In February, Murray said the tax would raise $16 million per year. He now says it would raise $23 million per year, most of which would be spent on programs that help low-income and vulnerable children. Those would include before- and after-school programs, summer learning programs, Seattle Colleges scholarships and early learning programs.
Several million dollars in tax revenue would also be spent on efforts meant to increase access to healthful food. Murray says he expects President Donald Trump’s administration to cut the federal grants that support a city program providing people who receive food assistance with vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Some restaurant and convenience-store owners, with support from soda-industry trade groups and some labor unions, have organized to oppose the mayor’s tax, calling it an unjust burden on them and their working-class customers.
They say restaurant owners who purchase syrup for fountain drinks in bulk will see their costs jump significantly, more than doubling.
And they say convenience-store owners will watch customers make purchases at nearby stores outside the city limits.
In a news release Thursday from Keep Seattle Livable for All opposing the tax, Lewis Rodd of Ezell’s Famous Chicken slammed the proposal.
“I just don’t get it. Why would our City Council want to proceed with a massive tax on our diverse small-business community and our city’s low-income families,” he said. “There has to be a better way to raise revenue.”
But Murray has pointed out that heavy consumption of sugary beverages is linked to health problems, including diabetes, hypertension and heart and dental disease.
Dr. Ben Danielson of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and Estela Ortega of El Centro de la Razaare are leading the Seattle Healthy Kids coalition in support of the tax.
“It’s time for Seattle to confront obesity, diabetes and other health conditions among our city’s most vulnerable populations,” they said in a statement.
The mayor says that reports of sales losses and layoffs in Philadelphia, where a soda tax was enacted this year, have been overblown.
To bolster his proposal for Seattle, Murray points to a new study on the effects of a soda tax in Berkeley, California. Sales of sugary beverages declined nearly 10 percent in the year after the city imposed the nation’s first such tax, while sales of water and other untaxed beverages increased, according to the study, which was primarily paid for by soda-tax booster Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor.