Jesse’s Story of the Day

Jesse Jones sifts through confusion surrounding Seattle’s Sugary Drink Tax


Seattle’s Sweetened Beverage Tax went into effect at the beginning of 2018, and consumers are noticing the extra cost.

We know the addition of 1.75 cents per fluid ounce is hitting soda drinkers, but Jesse Jones learned it could dig into everyone’s wallet.

At its core, the law is supposed to help people in Seattle make healthier choices, right?

“To me, the law seemed to be intended to tax beverages that really have zero nutritional quality,” registered dietitian and nutritionist Carrie Dennett explained.

So we brought some of the drinks we were charged extra for, and some we weren’t, to Dennett.

One that stood out was coconut water.

“I do not think this should be included,” Dennett said.

But it had a sugar surcharge.

“This {coconut water} does not have any added sugars, so honestly, I don’t know why this would be included under the soda tax,” Dennett explained.

Another baffling beverage — juice.

“So this appears to be a blend of 100% juice,” Dennett said.  “I don’t know. I don’t see the added sugar. I don’t know why this is…why this is taxed.”

An Odwalla Protein Shake has 47 grams of sugar in it, but we were not charged because the law excludes drinks with milk as the main ingredient.

“I don’t think the law is going to help people make healthier choices,” Dennett said.

City Council member Lisa Herbold was the only council member who voted against the sweetened beverage tax, and she was the only council member who had the courage to talk to us about it.

“I supported the intent, but i really feel strongly that the structure of the tax as well as the size of the tax and who we decided intentionally not to tax is a problem,” Herbold said.

Council member Herbold likes that the sugar tax funds will go towards programs that promote healthy eating.  But she said the potential health benefits remain to be seen.

“I think time will tell, but again… I have concerns,” Herbold said.

What we wanted to know was who will make the calls as to what’s sugary and what’s not?  City Finance Director Glen Lee said it’s on the beverage distributors.

“It’s a self-reported tax so the distributors will make the initial assessment,” Lee explained.  “And we perceive for the vast majority of drinks, that’ll be very clear, what is subject to the tax or not.”

But that sugar tax is being sprinkled on to consumers.  Owners can increase prices however — and wherever — they want.  Not just on sugary drinks.

“A retailer may increase their prices for other brands, other product lines, lawn care, meat, poultry, to recover what they perceive are extra expenses they have from the distributor,” Lee explained.

Remember that juice and coconut water that were taxed?  The city said they shouldn’t have been.  So, what happens when the distributor gets it wrong?  Lee said distributors will get audited by his department.

“I think the onus is really on the city to make sure that it is understood,” Herbold said.  “And if they’re not, then that’s a failure on the city’s part.”

Lee said audits will begin over the next several months.

“I still have concerns with the law itself, but at the very least, it should be implemented in a way that has uniformity,” Herbold said.

But for now, it seems the confusion is here to stay.

“It is so gray.  It is so many shades of gray. No pun intended,” Dennett said.

We contacted individual stores where we were charged the surcharge for drinks when the city said we shouldn’t have been.  Most stores told us they were charged the tax on those beverages from their distributors and have since fixed the issue.


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