Seattle’s beverage tax is a symptom of Washington’s upside-down tax system
Sugar is an addiction. So many of us are stuck in the cycle, and the health effects are undoubtedly negative. Constant soda drinking is the bane of dentists everywhere. Sugary candies and desserts provide empty calories that fill in American’s waistlines. While the term “crisis” is vastly overused in today’s political climate, sugar addiction perpetuated by advertising has facilitated the modern obesity epidemic and deserves to be considered as a public health crisis.
Yet legislative prescriptions have fallen flat. Seattle’s beverage tax is seemingly failing in its stated mission of curbing sugar consumption. Proponents of the Beverage Tax claimed it would help reduce obesity and address epidemic levels of sugar abuse by disincentivizing drinking of sugary sodas while raising needed revenue for the city by creating a “sin” tax on negative behavior. Instead, the tax’s revenue has beaten all projections, topping $16 million in the first 9 months as retailers have chosen to pass the costs of the tax on to the consumer.
While this is great for Seattle’s bottom line, the implication is clear – the tax doesn’t appear to be affecting people’s sugar habits, it’s just punishing consumers unequally. The tax disproportionately punishes the disadvantaged according to Gallup polling as “nonwhites, and the low-income in the U.S. drink more regular soda than other Americans.” and “nonwhites (46%) and low-income Americans (45%) — two groups among the most likely to be obese — follow just behind the young in regular soda consumption.” Meanwhile, in a nod to the power of Starbucks and the need of the Seattle City Council not to anger their largely white and middle class voter bases, milk-based beverages are exempt from the tax. This is despite the fact that a 12oz can of Coca-Cola carries 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar, while a Starbucks 12oz white chocolate mocha with no whipped cream has 280 calories and 42 grams of sugar.
Not only does the Beverage Tax punish the poor by increasing the cost of their every day purchases, it punishes small business owners. Instead of going down the street to your local corner store and supporting a locally owned business, people are fulfilling their sugar habits at major retailers (who can absorb the cost of the tax) where they can realize some savings to minimize the effects of the beverage tax on their wallets. This wasn’t unforeseen; the same thing happened in Chicago prompting the repeal of their tax. We should not be ineffectively punishing those stuck in the cycle of sugar, we need to address the root causes. This can happen through better nutrition education in schools and it absolutely must include pushing back against the major corporations that are perpetuating obesity and unhealthy behavior. So while State voters recently acted to block other cities in Washington from also enacting beverage taxes, the $20 million spent by the beverage industry on the campaign is concerning.
Even while the tax fails to discourage soda drinkers, tax proceeds that were earmarked for programs promoting healthful eating and education are being diverted to balance the city budget. Instead of a tax to address unhealthy habits, the Beverage Tax is using our cities most disadvantaged and at-risk citizens as a piggy bank. Yet can we really blame the Seattle City Council? They need to raise funds somehow, and with very few effective options available to them thanks to Washington State Law, they’re trying to pick among the best of a variety of bad options.
In the end, the Beverage Tax is a symptom of the larger systemic inequity that plagues Washington State through our unequal tax system. With Democrats in strong control of both houses of the Washington State Legislature and with Governor Jay Inslee looking to burnish his credentials ahead of a potential challenge for the Democratic Presidential nomination, now is the perfect time to fix our state’s tax system and institute an income tax. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has reignited the national conversation about our tax system advocating a return to pre-Reagan marginal tax rates, and she’s got it right – which even 45% of Republicans agree with. It’s time for everyone to pay their fair share.