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Jesse Jones investigates Seattle soda tax confusion

The Seattle soda tax went into effect Jan. 1, 2018. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)
LISTEN: Jesse Jones talks about Seattle soda tax confusion

After just three months, Seattle’s soda tax is proving to cause as much confusion as it did controversy when it first passed.

As KIRO 7’s Jesse Jones found out, stores are not exactly sure which drinks are subject to the soda tax, and it doesn’t appear the city will provide  clarification anytime soon.

“We’ve gone to stores where people actually charged the sugary drink tax on diet drinks and they shouldn’t have,” Jones told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “The level of confusion around this and how they handle it is an issue … there’s a lot of questions to be answered.”

RELATED: Seattle tax nearly doubles drink prices at Costco

Take coconut water, for example. Jones found coconut water being sold at a Seattle shop with a sugar tax included in the price. But that drink should be not be subject to the tax. It has no added sugars. At the same time, an Odwalla protein shake had no extra charge because drinks with milk as a main ingredient are exempt.

“According to the city, (coconut water) is not supposed to be taxed,” Jones said. “The problem is the distributor got it wrong. Or the store got it wrong and it was still charging people the tax for it.”

“It just blows me away that 47 grams of sugar (in an Odwalla drink) …” he said. “This is crazy. At the same time, milk is a no. 1 product. You start to think as to why they wouldn’t (tax milk drinks)? … This is just me extrapolating here. But what other business in town sells a lot of sugary drinks with milk in it?”

The answer is Starbucks.

Seattle soda tax confusion

Seattle’s soda tax is on distributors, who then pass it on to stores, which in turn pass it on to customers.

“The distributors are the ones who sit back and say, ‘Hey, we get to place this tax on sugary drinks,’” Jones said. “How does the city check? They are letting the fox guard the hen house.”

The city would be the final authority. Though it is uncertain when or if an officials will check in on the soda tax.

“The other thing we heard … the city is not sure when they are going to start auditing,” he said. “We are told: ‘it might be this quarter, it might be next quarter. If we see something alarming we might do it now.’ We don’t even know when the auditors are going to start checking.”

Jones also attempted to have city council members explain the soda tax and answer some of the confusion. He questions the logic of the soda tax. It will hit poor residents most, yet is sold as a means to fund healthier food options for that same demographic.

“We tried to talk with every member of council,” Jones said. “Everyone is either too busy for a very long time or declined to speak to us. That’s a problem to me. You have seven folks who voted for it and every single one doesn’t want to talk to us. That’s an issue.”

“It’s like taxing cigarettes and then using that money toward healthcare. Why?” he said. “They are going to take this money and give it to co-ops so you can buy fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. I like that, but if the same people are drinking the sugary drink and having lettuce with it, are we really making a difference here? I do not know. We are going to sit back and see how this works.”

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