A battle is bubbling up between campaigns for and against Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed tax on sugary beverages.
More than 150 small-business owners are calling on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to reconsider his plan for a soda tax, while a group backing the tax has enlisted heavy hitters with health-care and community-organizing expertise to rally support.
The business owners sent a letter to Murray and held a news conference Tuesday to object to the plan, under which distributors would pay 2 cents per ounce.
The opponents — mostly owners of convenience stores and small restaurants — say the tax would be an unfair burden on their operations and customers.
They say the tax on distributors would be passed along to customers, and hurt sales. A two-liter bottle of soda would cost an additional $1.36, they say.
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The business owners received organizational help Tuesday from the Washington Beverage Association, which represents producers, bottlers and distributors, including Coca-Cola. And they were joined by representatives from two labor unions: Teamsters Local 174, which represents beverage, supermarket and food-service workers, and Teamsters Local 117, which represents warehouse workers, trucker drivers and others.
“This is not fair to the minorities who are owning most of the convenience stores,” said Gurdev Singh Mann, who runs gas-station stores in Hillman City and South Park.
“The tax on soda is not fair for the working-class people who drink the soda.”
Singh Mann said he learned about Murray’s plan from an American Beverage Association representative who brought a pamphlet to his store.
“I was so stunned,” he said. “The soda and the sweetened beverages — that’s the main thing we sell.”
Teamsters 174 business agent Pete Lamb said Murray’s tax would be a “killer of jobs we cannot afford to lose in the city” — union jobs with decent wages and benefits.
Murray has said the tax on drinks such as sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened teas and bottled coffees would raise $16 million per year to fund programs aimed at closing gaps in education outcomes between the city’s white youth and youth of color. And he’s said the tax would improve health by reducing sugar consumption.
The mayor announced the plan during his State of the City address in February, saying he’d seek City Council approval later this year.
The group convened to campaign for the tax, the Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition, announced Dr. Ben Danielson and Estela Ortega as its co-chairs Tuesday.
Danielson is senior medical director of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in the Central Area, which provides medical care for low-income children. Ortega is executive director of El Centro de la Raza, a community center on Beacon Hill.
“The negative health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages are beyond debate,” Danielson said in a news release.
“And we know from studies analyzing cities that have already adopted this funding source that we can reduce consumption of these products while simultaneously increasing resources for early childhood education and public health programs designed to confront obesity, diabetes and other conditions among our city’s most vulnerable populations.”
Ortega added, “By using a new funding source that will support healthy kids while also increasing resources for proven programs that ensure our kids are well-prepared for school makes this campaign a no-brainer.”
In 2010, opponents of statewide taxes on candy and soda raised $16 million — most from the American Beverage Association — and used misleading messaging in a winning campaign to repeal the taxes.
The site of Monday’s opposition news conference was low-key: Providence Market, a corner store near Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus.
Market owner Temesghen Kahsay said he sells more than 50 bottles of soda a week. He and Singh Mann said they view the proposed tax as the latest among many changes making Seattle a more expensive city.
Kahsay said property-tax hikes and rent increases are pushing customers out of his neighborhood. Singh Mann has laid off workers to cope with the city’s boosted minimum wage, he said.
“The city’s not for average people much,” Kahsay said. “You have to have too much money to live here.”
In attacking Murray’s plan, opponents are slamming the tax as regressive, saying poor people spend a greater proportion of their money on drinks than wealthy people.
And they’re pointing to Philadelphia, where a soda tax was enacted this year and hundreds of workers with jobs related to the beverage industry are being laid off.
Jennifer Cue, CEO and an owner of Seattle-based Jones Soda, said she believes in the programs the mayor hopes to fund but wants him to find a different revenue source.
On the other side, the Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition is citing medical research.
Over a third of American adults are obese, and Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said soda taxes are “the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic,” the group’s news release said.
Murray’s tax wouldn’t apply to diet soda and other drinks with artificial sweeteners. Some have suggested that’s unfair because affluent white people tend to drink more diet drinks. But the research on artificial sweeteners harming health is less robust.
The Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition registered with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last week as a “potential new ballot issue” campaign.
But a group spokesman said the plan remains to seek approval from the City Council rather than voters.