The Seattle City Council on Monday approved a new tax on distributors of soda pop and other sugary drinks. Diet soft drinks were exempted. The tax is expected to take effect in early July and add about $1.18 to the cost of a 2-liter bottle of soda.
The Seattle City Council on Monday approved a new tax on distributors of sugary drinks such as soda pop.
Proponents said the tax would reduce consumption of unhealthful beverages and help the city provide better access to nutritious foods in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
They said soda companies market heavily to children in those communities, where more people struggle with sugar-linked health problems such as obesity.
The vote was 7-1, with Councilmember Lisa Herbold voting no, and Councilmember Kshama Sawant absent.
A handful of other cities and counties have adopted similar taxes, including Berkeley, California; Philadelphia; and Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago.
“It’s a huge win for Seattle,” said Victor Colman, director of the Seattle-based Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition.
“It’s not a panacea for the problem of childhood obesity, but it’s a huge marker to take this step. Consumption drops will happen, and we’re going to see stronger health in the communities that need this the most.”
Monday’s action followed months of debate over the tax, initially proposed by Mayor Ed Murray. Business groups and some labor unions warned that the plan would burden entrepreneurs and result in job losses.
There were arguments about whether diet soda would be taxed, whether the syrups in flavored lattes prepared by baristas would be taxed, what the tax rate would be and how the money would be spent.
The council ultimately settled on a rate of 1.75 cents per ounce, which means the tax would be about $1.18 for a 2-liter bottle of soda.
The tax will be collected starting next year unless opponents put a referendum on the ballot and succeed in blocking the measure.
Diet soda won’t be taxed, and the council also chose to exempt baby formula, medicine, weight-loss drinks and 100 percent fruit juice.
Sports drinks such as Gatorade, energy drinks such as Red Bull and fruit drinks such as Sunny D all will be taxed, along with syrups used in soda-fountain pop.
Some council members favored including diet soda, which is more popular with wealthier white consumers. That was one recommendation made after the city put the plan through a racial-equity analysis.
But other council members said the science suggesting diet soda is an unhealthful beverage is less solid than the evidence of regular soda being harmful.
The mayor initially exempted barista-made coffee beverages from the tax. Then he exempted milk drinks, instead. It remained unclear Monday whether the syrups used in flavored lattes such as those ordered at Starbucks would be taxed.
Amendments were proposed by Council President Bruce Harrell to explicitly exclude such drinks and by Councilmember Lisa Herbold to explicitly include them, but each failed. Herbold said it’s her understanding that lattes won’t end up being taxed.
Herbold said she voted against the tax because her colleagues rejected her attempts to lower the rate and to include diet soda and lattes. She said the tax measure, as passed, would hit poor pop buyers hardest.
There were mixed messages about the reason for the tax, with some proponents saying it would discourage consumption of unhealthful beverages and others stressing the good that would be done with the revenue.
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Under the mayor’s plan, the bulk of the revenue would have funded education programs for low-income and otherwise vulnerable children. But the council shifted the emphasis more toward healthful-eating programs.
The tax is expected to raise about $15 million per year. Some money will support the city’s Fresh Bucks program, which helps people using food stamps buy more fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.
And the council approved an amendment offered by Councilmember Debora Juarez calling out food banks and soup kitchens as eligible to receive funds.
“Funds raised by the tax will put healthy food on the table for hungry families across our city,” said Tanika Thompson, a food-access organizer for the South Seattle community organization Got Green.
Doctors and health organizations such as the American Heart Association supported the tax.
But soda companies, many convenience-store and restaurant owners and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce opposed it, as did the Martin Luther King County Labor Council and a Teamsters union with workers in the soda industry.
The council reserved up to $1.5 million in the first five years of the tax to help such workers retrain for new jobs.
Husik Harutyunyan, who owns a small grocery store in North Seattle, urged the council to reject the tax.
He said his customers may begin buying pop in Shoreline if the tax leads him to raise his prices. “I have to close my store and go find some job,” the 44-year-old said.
A 10-year-old, Sophia Harrison, offered another view during the council’s public-comment period Monday.
“It is a great idea to fund programs to help kids be more prepared and to help families eat more healthy food,” she said, reading from handwritten remarks.
“I can’t think of a better way to raise that money than a tax on something that has absolutely no nutritional value.”