Seattle passes tax on sugary drinks

Seattle joins Philadelphia in instituting a tax on sugary drinks.

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council on Monday approved a new tax on distributors of sugary drinks such as soda.

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, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Philadelphia; and the county that includes Chicago.

Monday’s action followed months of debate over the Seattle tax initially proposed by Mayor Ed Murray.

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 what the revenue from the tax would be used for.

The Council settled on 1.75 cents per ounce.

There were mixed messages about the reason for the tax, with some proponents saying it would discourage consumption of unhealthy beverages and others stressing the good that would be done with the revenue.

Some council members said including diet soda would make the tax more equitable because diet soda is more popular with wealthy people and white people. But others said the science on diet soda being unhealthy 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 was unclear whether and how the syrups used in flavored lattes such as those ordered at Starbucks would be taxed.

Under the mayor’s proposal, 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 healthy-eating programs.

Health organizations such as the American Heart Association, doctors and some community groups supported the tax.

But the soda industry, many convenience store and restaurant owners, and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce opposed it, as did a soda industry union and the Martin Luther King County Labor Council.