EDITORIAL | Seattle’s proposed soda tax doesn’t go far enough

According to the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Washington state has the most unfair state and local tax system in the country.

The state’s reliance on sales taxes puts a heavy burden on our poorest residents.

But Seattle’s latest effort to increase revenue would again disproportionally affect those with low-incomes.

Last month, Mayor Ed Murray announced his plan to seek a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, levied on distributors, though it would certainly trickle-down into higher prices for consumers. In terms of “sugary drinks,” the tax would be on regular soda, energy drinks, pre-sweetened bottled teas, sports beverages, and Starbucks bottled Frappucinos.

The city believes $16 million could be raised per year, with the money going to fund recommendations from the Education Summit Advisory Group, like the expansion of the Parent-Child Home Program, and greater access to healthy food through the “Fresh Bucks” program. That’s not to mention the presumed drop in consumption of these drinks, and the idea that such a decrease would lead better health for current soda drinkers.

But the effort also raises a key question at its core: Why soda? And for that matter, why not other relatively unhealthy drink options?

A 12 ounce latte from Starbucks has approximately 13 grams of sugar. A can of Diet Coke doesn’t have any sugar, but it’s not exactly settled science that swapping sugar for sugar substitutes is a healthier option. In any case, you’re probably not seeing huge benefits from switching over to diet soda if you usually drink regular.

So, why is it that neither in-store prepared coffee beverages or diet soda are included in this tax effort? It’s disingenuous to argue that part of the effort is to make our communities healthier, but cherry-pick which sweet drinks should be taxed, and which shouldn’t. It all seems rather arbitrary.

Theoretically, adding those to the tax plan would bring in substantially more revenue for the city, and the money could then go toward addressing the health impacts of consuming excess sugar. A portion could go to fund nutrition funding in schools, with some of the money subsidizing fitness programs in underserved parts of the city.

Many will argue that if the city were truly seeking a progressive way to raise money, they would attempt to tax literally any luxury good that doesn’t disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. They’re right.

But that’s a conversation for another day.

If the city wants to tax soda, casting a wider, more-equitable net would be the prudent course of action. A sugary drink is a sugary drink, whether it’s carbonated and in a can, or served up hot at your local café.