In January, Seattle’s Sweetened Beverage Tax turned 5 years old. It has been a resounding success. The tax is working as designed — delivering on the promises made when it was passed into law.
· Sales of sugary drinks are down, which will prevent diabetes, heart disease and unhealthy weight gain.
· People are more aware that these beverages increase the risk of serious health problems.
· Revenue from the tax — about $22 million annually — is being equitably invested in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to expand programs that increase food and nutrition security and that support child development and early learning.
The Seattle City Council, with support from community organizations and leaders, passed the tax in 2017 to reduce sales of sugary drinks and raise revenues for needed community programs. It went into effect in January 2018.
Sugary drinks are a major driver of the epidemic of chronic diseases and contribute to health inequities in diabetes and other chronic diseases. For instance, in King County, the rate of diabetes is 3.5 times higher among residents with the lowest incomes compared to those with the highest. It is 2.5-3 times higher among Black Americans and Indigenous Americans relative to white Americans. Sugary drink consumption is also higher among these groups.
Reducing sales of sugary drinks will reduce these health inequities. The beverage industry aggressively promotes its products and uses predatory marketing practices, targeting people of color. It sets the price of sugary drinks low to encourage consumption. Industry’s relentless promotion of sugary drinks has made them the No. 1 source of added sugar in American diets.
Community advocates and Seattle’s Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board successfully negotiated a requirement that tax revenue be used to expand food and nutrition security and early childhood programs in communities most impacted by sugary drinks, chronic diseases, and health and education inequities.
The largest investment makes fruits and vegetables and culturally diverse foods more accessible and affordable for people living in impacted communities. Tax revenue is supporting a major expansion of the Fresh Bucks program, which subsidizes purchases of produce in groceries and farmers markets, helping keep food affordable amid rising food prices. The tax funds Farm to Preschool programs, which bring sustainably produced foods from local farms to preschools, and the new Healthy Food in Schools program, which adds fresh, local, culturally diverse foods to school menus. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tax provided $800 in food vouchers to 6,000 families. Tax revenues are helping youth choose water as a healthy beverage alternative through investments in high-quality water bottle filling stations in Seattle Public Schools and an award-winning, youth-led media campaign to promote drinking water: Be Ready, Be Hydrated.
The tax is turning what once was soda sales into healthy fruits and vegetables, while generating income for store owners and local farmers.
The tax also helps young children get a healthy start in life. Child care subsidies and developmental supports build a foundation for school success and beyond and support social-emotional development.
Two new grant programs, the Food Equity Fund and the Prenatal-to-Three Community Grant Program, support dozens of community-led efforts that expand access to nutritious and culturally relevant food and early childhood services.
The equitable investment of tax revenues in communities most impacted by health and educational injustices reflects the important role the community advisory board has played in making allocation recommendations to the city. The board, established by the tax legislation, advocates for funding programs that reduce race and income-based disparities in food security and child health outcomes. It monitors tax implementation and issues an annual report to keep the community informed about tax collections and revenue investments. It also makes recommendations for equitable grantmaking by the city. Advocates and city officials view the board as an effective model for community-government partnerships — another success.
The investment of tax revenues in under-resourced communities makes the sugary beverage tax an economically progressive policy. A recent study from the University of Washington showed that the tax redistributes dollars from higher- to lower-income households. The dollar amount of tax revenues funding programs benefiting people with lower incomes is greater than the amount they pay in taxes.
Sales of sugary drinks in Seattle dropped by a huge 22% immediately after tax implementation and have remained low. Contrary to soda industry misinformation, food retailers have not been harmed financially by the tax, as customers instead have been buying healthier beverages such as water. Nor have shoppers left Seattle to buy taxed beverages outside the city. Prices of non-taxed beverages have not increased.
Sugary beverage taxes have had similar effects in other U.S. cities and in nations across the globe. A tax that increases the price of sweetened beverages by 10% lowers sales by 16%. Studies from Mexico and the United Kingdom show reductions in obesity and cavities.
So, what next? First, the state Legislature should repeal the current statewide law banning local sugary drink taxes. Coca-Cola and Pepsi led a deceptive campaign to pass this measure, claiming action was needed to prevent taxes on groceries when their real intent was to block more local sugary drink taxes. Local communities should be able to decide what’s best for them.
Second, it should pass a statewide sugary drink tax so all Washingtonians can benefit. Revenues could support the state’s fruit and vegetable subsidy program, which is facing a funding shortfall.
Finally, the state and city should adopt additional policies that address sugary drinks. They should allow only healthy products in checkout aisles and promotional displays, following the lead of Berkeley, California. They should require sugar content warning labels on sugary drink containers and outdoor ads — something 10 countries have already done. They should require warning icons on restaurant items that are high in added sugars, following the lead of New York City.
The Seattle Sweetened Beverage Tax is good news for public health and for our communities, working exactly as expected. Sales of taxed beverages are down, and tax revenues are supporting new programs that meet important community needs. It is helping Seattle become a healthier, more equitable city, where all of us can more readily afford nutritious foods and give our kids a healthy start in life.
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