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Seattle soda tax could go statewide, Monday’s your chance to weigh in

Two-liter bottles of regular and diet soda are seen for sale at a Manhattan store in 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

When Seattle introduced its tax on sweetened beverages in 2017, it faced an uphill battle.

When the tax — a $0.0175 per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — distributed in the city, with at least 40 calories per 12 ounces passed the city council in 2018, the Sweetened Beverage Tax (SBT) continued to face some criticism from the Teamsters, some low-income communities who felt it disproportionately impacted their wallets and others, despite being championed by health officials who argue soda is one of the leading causes of the nation’s obesity epidemic, diabetes, and other significant health issues.

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The SBT is levied on distributors, but the cost can be passed on to customers.

“I’m a big fan of the soda tax. I’m a primary care doctor, and so I have seen so many of the devastating consequences of the diseases, like hypertension and diabetes, obesity, and what it does to people and families, and we know that sugary drinks are the leading source of sugars in the American diet, and they increase the risk of these diseases, so anything I can do to help to change that trajectory? I’m very much passionate about,” said Dr. Marianne Bauman, a primary care doctor and member of the National Board of the American Heart Association.

It was clear there was an appetite for the tax in other cities in Washington, but backed by the food and beverage industry and others, I-1634 quickly landed on the ballot that year and was approved by Washington voters barring local jurisdictions from enacting their own taxes on any grocery items. It was seen as a pre-emptive strike on soda taxes. That is a frequent tool of the beverage industry, according to a study out of the University of Nevada Reno this week.

That brings us to SB 5371, a new proposal nearly identical to Seattle’s Sweetened Beverage Tax being proposed statewide starting in October. The statewide proposal is for a 1.75 cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages on drinks containing 20 calories per 12 ounces of sugar. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing Monday morning in the Senate Committee on Health & Long Term Care at 8 a.m.

“The science does show that these sugary beverages are the major reason for what we’re seeing with obesity, et cetera, and the increase in the diseases. And we’re passionate at the American Heart Association about this, because that’s where the science leads us,” said Bauman, who will testify in support of the bill Monday morning.

One difference between the statewide proposal and Seattle’s is the statewide version imposes the tax on sugary drinks defined as those containing 20 calories or more per 12 ounces, compared to 40 calories per 12 ounces in Seattle. Money raised by the statewide measure would be split between the existing Foundational Public Health Services account and the soon-to-be created Health Equity Account.

“These monies are going to be used toward health equity, because we know that communities of color are really targeted [by sugary beverage advertisers], and have higher incidence of these diseases. We’re talking about 40% of it will go to foundational public health initiatives. We’ve seen with COVID-19, how important public health is,” Bauman noted.

Funds from the Seattle tax came in handy last year when COVID-19 hit, as food insecurity became an even bigger problem for communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

“We, of course, are always concerned about people’s concerns about jobs, but we now have some data, and in Philadelphia, where they have had this ongoing, there’s been no evidence the tax resulted in job losses, and the overall economy, the private sector, limited service restaurants or convenience stores. So we get a benefit from this,” Bauman said. “In Seattle, it’s been $24 million a year [in revenue], and that’s gone to help people get food and get food vouchers, education, early childhood education, things that are really helpful to our city and to our state.”

The latest studies on Seattle’s soda tax indicate a more than 30% drop in sugary beverage sales. But a 12 month study commissioned by the city from the University of Washington had a different conclusion.

A couple of months later, there were more positive results in a study on Philadelphia’s soda tax, which indicated a positive impact on sales and potentially public health outcomes for those communities most at risk.

You can sign up to share your thoughts on the proposed statewide sugary beverage tax in virtual testimony here until 7 a.m., one hour before the hearing starts, or send written testimony for up to 24 hours after the hearing.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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