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Is Seattle’s soda tax actually making people healthier?

A sign indicating higher prices of sugary drinks due to Seattle's soda tax. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)

It’s not entirely surprising that Seattle’s soda tax has been raising money at a rapid rate, now totaling approximately $4.5 million. Nor is it a shock that the 1.75 cents per ounce has caused a decline in soda sales at stores and distributors.

What KIRO Radio’s John Curley wants to know if anybody’s actually getting healthier.

“Will people buy less sugary drinks if you raise the price? Yes,” Curley said. “Will they get thinner and will this do anything about obesity? The answer to that is no. There’s no evidence that shows people won’t consume some other type of sugary thing. They might not drink a soda, but then they’ll go ahead and drink a milkshake.”

RELATED: Initiative to stop soda, grocery tax gets big support, likely to make Nov ballot

The money is set to pay for healthy-food programs, community-college scholarships, administrative costs, and early-learning programs. Part of the revenue will also be spent on studying the tax itself, and how it impacts people’s consumption behavior.

What Curley would like is for the study to specifically look at whether people are actually getting healthier, since it’s seemingly the entire thrust of the tax.

“Why don’t you get a metric? Do a test. Get 4,000 or 5,000 to make it scientifically relevant. OK, these are soda drinkers, and then the tax goes into effect. You weigh 245 pounds, you’re 5’7, and you’ve got a 41 inch waist. One year later, you’re exactly the same weight, if not heavier, because now you’re buying a Snickers bar.”

“Well then we’ll go after the Snickers bars,” joked KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney.

There’s been an effort to implement such a tax at the state level, as well as an effort to prevent it. On January 8, a resolution to re-introduce HB 1975 was passed. It would place a tax on distributors of sugary drinks, but at 2 cents per fluid ounce, more than Seattle’s 1.75 cents per fluid ounce. Neither efforts were successful.

Those opposed recently gathered upwards of 350,000 signatures for Initiative 1634, which would bar local governments from imposing taxes on sweetened beverages.

Is the soda about more than reducing obesity?

For Tom, the soda tax is a greater good even if it doesn’t reduce obesity, considering the money being raised.

“It’s a failsafe situation, because even if you don’t get people to stop drinking, you at least are raising money for a good cause,” he said. “If you raise money for early infant education, there’s a social good that comes out of it whether we stop drinking or not. When I go into a Bartell and they have the price announcing what the soda tax is on top of it, I don’t know if that’s going to stop somebody who’s dying for a Coke.”

But Curley wants the tax to be held to the issue its proponents claim to be tackling. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is to have people be healthier and less obese. But they have no metric, as they never want to have a metric.”

“The thing they’re looking at is: ‘Hey, we made $4.5 million after transferring income from mostly poor minorities to the government, which will then take that and create government work jobs, like for instance, somebody handing out bananas and apples and oranges to people that don’t want them.”

“Sales are down, so people are making different choices. But are they getting thinner?”

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