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Seattle mayor proposes new tax on sodas, sugary drinks

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by: Casey McNerthney

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wants a local tax of 2 cents per ounce on sugary drinks, including regular soda, Monster energy drinks, Sunny D, Gatorade, Starbucks bottled Frappuccinos and Arizona iced teas.

That works out to $1.44 per six-pack.

The tax, which would be put on distributors, is meant to fund education programs and “eliminate the opportunity gap between white students and African American/black students and other historically under-represented students of color,” Murray said.

QUICK FACTS

– Tax would be 2 cents per ounce, levied on distributors

– Covers sodas, energy drinks, Starbucks bottled drinks, and iced teas

– Based on previous efforts in Berkeley, California, and other cities

– Other cities have seen sales drop, but it’s too soon to know if that leads to lower rates of obesity or diabetes

– Education funding in Seattle to be based on recommendations from Education Summit Advisory Group

– CDC says there’s “no single or simple solution to the obesity epidemic”

Murray said the plan is based on recommendations from the Education Summit Advisory Group. He pointed to a similar tax in Berkeley, California, that he said reduced consumption of such drinks by 20 percent. He also pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s message that such efforts are “the single most effective remedy to reverse the obesity epidemic.”

The “single most effective” line comes from a 2010 journal article by Thomas R. Frieden. However, Frieden is no longer the director of the CDC.

The current CDC website says “there is no single or simple solution to the obesity epidemic. It’s a complex problem and there has to be a multifaceted approach.”

Freiden was previously the New York health commissioner under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who lost a bruising fight to limit the size of sugary drinks.

Lobbyists for soda companies have helped stop soda taxes with well-financed campaigns in several cities.

Last November, five municipalities including San Francisco and the county that includes Chicago approved special taxes on sugary drinks – backed by Bloomberg’s charitable organization.

Seven U.S. cities now have special, per-ounce taxes on sugary drinks. All were approved in the last two years with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, as well as from Laura and John Arnold, the latter of whom ran a hedge fund.

Oakland and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado, also passed sugary drink taxes last November. They follow Berkeley, California, in 2014, and Philadelphia last summer.

Bloomberg Philanthropies said it will help others that come forward.

Murray and his staff did not mention Bloomberg help specifically, though they did reference the Berkley tax that Murray said “reduced the consumption of sugary drinks by 20 percent.”

That statistic — showing a 21 percent drop — was done with self-reporting by participants and was published in the American Journal of Public Health. There was a decrease in Berkeley, but consumption rose 4 percent in two other cities, according to The New York Times.

But it is too soon to know whether those drops in sales will lead to lower rates of obesity or diabetes, The Times reported.

In 2010, state lawmakers in Olympia passed a budget package that enacted nearly $800 million in new taxes, including taxes on cigarettes, bottled water, beer, candy and soda. The taxes were repealed less than a year later after a multimillion-dollar, American Beverage Association-backed initiative.

Murray believes that the Seattle tax would raise $16 million annually to fund programs recommended by the Education Summit Advisory Group.

Already, soda consumption has been declining, though sales of other sweetened drinks such as sports beverages and bottled teas have grown, and obesity rates keep climbing.

The soda industry dismisses the notion that the measures amount to a movement, and says the proposals are being pushed in places more likely to pass them.

“It’s sort of a pesky thing that comes up now and then,” Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, which represents Coke, Pepsi and others, said before the November election.

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