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How Seattle felt about soda tax before it became reality

The Seattle soda tax has raised upwards of 4.5 million, but questions remain about its utility. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)

The Seattle City Council is finally hearing about how the public really felt about the tax before it they passed it.

“What we found is that the folks who were most knowledgeable about the tax were the folks who were intimately involved in the development with the tax; council members, distributors; and health advocacy organizations,” Dr. Nadine Chan with Public Health Seattle-King County reported to the council’s Finance and Neighborhoods Committee. “The folks who were least knowledgeable were folks who were retailers, consumers, and youth … regardless of whether people supported the tax, there was common agreement that use of the revenue to support health-promoting activities … there was unanimous support for that.”

The Seattle City Council passed a sugary beverage tax in 2017. It went into effect at the beginning of this year.

An analysis of the sweetened beverage tax, aka soda tax, was carried out by researchers at the University of Washington and with Seattle Children’s Health. The result is a 257-page report on initial perceptions of the tax before it was implemented. Seattle was compared to cities of similar demographics, such as Minneapolis and the DC metro area, as well as Kent, Federal Way, and Auburn.

The council’s Finance and Neighborhood’s Committee heard the results of the study on Wednesday.

The study is not a representation of what Seattleites think of the soda tax now. Rather, this is an analysis of perceptions before the implementation of the tax. These perceptions will be used as a baseline as researchers further assess the soda tax to determine any change in perceptions and effects on the public, businesses, etc. The council expects to hear back about those results in October.

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“The ultimate goal of this survey is to be able to assess the impact of the beverage tax on people’s norms and attitudes around sugary beverages and around the tax of themselves,” UW Public Health’s Dr. Jesse Jones-Smith told the council committee.

The report shows:

  • 58 percent of people polled approved of the tax (51 percent of approval came from low-income individuals, and 62 percent from high-income earners)
  • 58 percent believed the tax will improve the health of children; 55 percent believed the tax will generally improve public health
  • 79 percent believed the tax will not affect them negatively
  • 53 percent did not believe the tax would negatively affect small businesses
  • 82 percent believe drinking sugary drinks cause serious health effects

Researchers also conducted an in-store audit of drinks for sale in Seattle. A total of 226 stores in Seattle were compared to 232 stores around Kent, Auburn, and Federal Way. Prices were similar in Seattle and the comparison cities, though sugary drinks in Seattle — including prepared coffee drinks — are slightly more expensive than outside the city. Non-sugar added drinks are slightly cheaper in Seattle.

“These sugary beverages are often time prepared coffees which are some of the most expensive drinks we surveyed and they just cost a little bit more in Seattle, which we think is due to higher cost-of-living and higher labor costs here,” Jones-Smith said.

The study also shows what children and parents already drink in Seattle, indicating that local consumers drink less of the sugary stuff than comparison areas.

  • The highest consumption of any beverage for kids in Seattle was tap water.
  • Children in Seattle consume 8.6 ounces daily of sugary drinks subject to the tax versus 14.1 ounces in the comparison area.
  • Children consume 4.8 ounces of drinks not subject to the tax, versus 6.1 ounces in the comparison area.
  • Children consume 16.7 ounces of non-sugar added beverages, versus 19.2 ounces in the comparison area.
  • Parents in Seattle consume 14.3 ounces of sugary drinks subject to the tax; 21.4 ounces in comparison areas.
  • Parents consume 7 ounces of drink not subject to the tax; 9.8 in comparison areas.
  • Parents consume 19.1 ounces of non-sugar added drinks; 24 ounces in comparison areas.

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