Seattle City Council Digs Into Soda Tax Proposal

May 18, 2017

The Seattle City Council is digging into how best to proceed with a tax on sugary drinks proposed by the mayor last month.

The city wants to accomplish two things with the tax. The first goal is to encourage healthier choices by making drinks like soda more expensive and less appealing. The second is to use the new revenue source to pay for programs for low-income children.

In April, Mayor Ed Murray proposed taxing beverage distributors 1.75 cents per ounce. The tax would apply to sweetened drinks, including those using non-caloric sweeteners but excluding 100 percent fruit juice, medicine, and infant formula.

Murray said the city would accomplish its goals "by taxing corporations that are targeting communities of color just like the tobacco industry did with a product that undermines the health of young people living in these communities."

But the City Council is learning that achieving all of those desired outcomes won't be so simple.

The Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee heard from small business owners, public health experts and community groups at its meeting Tuesday.

Local businesses like restaurants, convenience stores and craft drink makers are worried the tax will mean more costs and fewer customers. They're pushing for a small business exemption.

"You know, the challenge I'm trying to figure out is I don't want your business to go down, but the point of the tax is I do want people to consume less sugar," Councilmember Mike O'Brien said when a soda brewer expressed fears that she might have to close shop.

Council members also heard from people who worked on similar taxes in Philadelphia and Berkeley, Calif.

Philadelphia's tax went into effect earlier this year. It's facing a legal challenge from the beverage industry, which claims the tax has caused companies to slash jobs in the area.

The city's first deputy revenue commissioner, Marisa Waxman, told Seattle council members that it's too early to measure the tax's economic impact.

There were also concerns about how the funds from the tax would be distributed.

The tax is intended to fund before- and after-school programs along with early education initiatives. Some of the revenue is also intended to support food assistance programs.

But Counclimember Debora Juarez wondered if the city could do more to promote access to healthy food for low-income communities.

"Children can't learn when they're hungry. Children can't behave when they're hungry," Juarez said. "And I understand the education piece, but I keep going back to you have to feed your people."

The committee also talked about tax implementation, enforcement and whether it would have the desired health effect.

Committee Chair Tim Burgess said the council will likely come out with its own legislation later this month. It may also choose to vote on separate amendments to the mayor's plan.