Would your caramel or mocha latte be affected by Seattle’s proposed sweet-beverage tax? A final City Council vote is expected Monday, but doubts remain about how the tax would work.

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With a sweetened-beverage tax proposed for Seattle, most of the buzz has been about whether the tax would cover diet soda in addition to regular pop.

But the Emerald City isn’t known for soda pop — it’s known for coffee, including the sugar-charged lattes that have helped make Starbucks a worldwide superbrand.

So, what about the venti white-chocolate mocha your favorite barista makes just the way you like it, with soy milk and no whip? The idea behind the tax is to reduce consumption of sugary beverages. At Starbucks, that drink contains 66 grams of sugar — similar to a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Though the City Council is expected to take a final vote Monday, there are still doubts about how exactly the tax might affect made-to-order coffee drinks.

Podcast: Debating Seattle’s proposed tax on sugary drinks — and diet soda, too

The latest plan calls for a tax of 1.75 cents per ounce on the distributors of sugary beverages and syrups used in beverages. The revenue — about $15 million annually to start out, would fund healthful-eating and education programs.

Bottled coffees, such as those made by Starbucks to be sold in stores, have from the start been included in the list of taxable drinks.

So have soda pop, sports and energy drinks such as Red Bull and Gatorade, some fruit drinks such as Sunny D and sweetened teas such as those sold by Arizona.

But when Mayor Ed Murray initially proposed the tax, in February, his plan explicitly exempted “in-store prepared coffee beverages,” such as sugary lattes.

That changed in April, when Murray sent his legislation to the council. He was no longer exempting in-store prepared coffee beverages, along with baby formula, medicine and 100 percent fruit juices.

Instead, milk beverages would be exempted along with those. Which begged the question — what about sugary lattes, which are made with syrups but are mostly milk?

At the time, a Murray spokesman said syrups used in beverages such as coffees would be taxed, with limited exceptions, “to be determined in the rule-making process.”

That process happens after the council passes an ordinance, when bureaucrats are asked to draw up the details the politicians didn’t address.

Though council members have discussed Murray’s plan at multiple committee meetings, revised it by removing diet drinks and cleared it for a final vote, the ordinance still doesn’t say anything explicit about pricey, made-to-order coffee drinks.


So what does it say? For beverages made with syrups and other concentrates, the tax would be calculated on the “largest volume of beverage that would typically be produced by the amount of concentrate.”

In other words, a box of soda-fountain syrup would be taxed on the number of ounces of pop created from it.

A bottle of caramel syrup could likewise be taxed on the number of ounces of caramel macchiatos created after mixing the syrup with milk and espresso.

But the ordinance doesn’t spell that out.

And it doesn’t say whether the milk-beverages exemption might apply to made-to-order coffee drinks.

Instead, it says the rule-making process would clarify “the inclusion or exclusion of particular products” and “the calculation of tax for concentrates based on manufacturer’s instructions or industry practice.”

The Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition, which is backing the tax, supports the existing plan. Proponents include doctors and health advocates.

Keep Seattle Livable for All, an opposition group including small-business owners, which claims the tax is complicated and burdensome, says the council should slow down.

And William Murray, the president of the National Coffee Association, wrote a letter to the council Thursday asking for coffee drinks to be taken out.

Starbucks didn’t reply Thursday to a request for comment.

Wylie Bush, who owns Cafe Barjot on Capitol Hill, hasn’t been following the council’s meetings, and he isn’t sure whether the tax would work as intended.

But Bush worries about the effect it could have on small businesses if distributors pass on the costs. Compared to a more progressive tax, “This just seems like wasted energy,” he said.

One more twist: Bush himself has nothing to worry about, because he makes his own syrups. In the ordinance, there’s an exemption for that.