The Seattle City Council approved a 1.75 cent-per-ounce sugary drink tax on Monday June 5th, becoming the eighth locale in the U.S. to adopt such a measure. The tax, which was proposed by Mayor Ed Murray in February, passed by a vote of 7-1.
Seattle joins Berkeley, Albany, Oakland and San Francisco, CA; Boulder, CO; Philadelphia, PA and Cook County, IL (Chicago) in levying a tax on sugary drinks to address critical community needs while discouraging overconsumption of unhealthy drinks. Sugary beverages like soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, fruit drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas, have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other chronic conditions.
Seattle’s measure had included diet beverages in the list of taxed drinks but legislators ultimately decided that they would not be taxed because there is not clear scientific evidence of harm associated with artificial sweeteners (read more in our research brief on the topic, linked here). The tax is being levied at the distributor level.
The city has estimated that $15 million will be raised by the tax in 2018. Initially, revenues were primarily dedicated to expanding early childhood and K-12 educational opportunities. Advocacy by community and public health advocates led to expansion of support for increasing access to healthy food. The presence of strong and persuasive advocates brought the final tax bill into greater alignment with community priorities. Specifically, revenues will be used to:
- Expand access to healthy and affordable food, close the food security gap, and promote healthy food choices:
- Community-based investments to expand food access;
- Fresh Bucks and Fresh Bucks to Go;
- Implementation of the Seattle Food Action Plan;
- Public health and nutrition programs targeted to assist persons experiencing diabetes and obesity;
- Public awareness campaigns to highlight the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on health outcomes and increase education about healthy food and beverages, and;
- Capital investments to promote healthy choices, such as water bottle filling stations in schools and community centers.
- Evidence-based programs that improve the social, emotional, educational, physical health, and mental health for children, especially those services that seek to reduce the disparities in outcomes for children and families based on race, gender, or other socioeconomic factors and to prepare children for a strong and fair start in kindergarten.
Advocacy also led to inclusion of a Community Advisory Board in the final bill. The Board will be composed of members from communities disproportionately affected by chronic diseases and experts in public health, food access and security and education and early learning. It will make recommendations on allocating tax revenues and review tax implementation.
The Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition, whose members include local and national health experts and proponents for equity in healthy food access and education, praised the passage of the tax.
“We applaud the City Council for boldly adopting a tax on sugary drinks to increase funding for critical programs in communities that need them the most,” said coalition co-chairs Dr. Ben Danielson of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and El Centro de la Raza Executive Director Estela Ortega, in a joint statement. “The soda industry disproportionately markets sugary drinks to communities of color, especially youth. And these very communities are most affected by the obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics resulting from the consumption of sugary drinks. That’s why a tax on sugary drinks – like taxes on tobacco – will be effective in not only addressing the health impacts of these products, but also in increasing funding for early learning, education and public health programs in Seattle.”
Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of and funder for sugary drink tax campaigns around the nation, also praised the passage of the tax. "Seattle joined the growing list of cities that are attacking obesity by taxing soda,” he said. “That’s good news for Seattle's health, and it helps build regional and national momentum for a policy whose time has come. Two years ago, no U.S. city or county had adopted a tax on sugary drinks. Now, eight have – and as it continues to prove successful, it will continue to spread."
A recently released HFA research brief found that sugary drink taxes have led to significant declines in sales in both Mexico (10% decline in 2015) and Berkeley, CA (10% decline in sales in its first year, and 21% decline in consumption in low income neighborhoods after implementation). The reduced consumption of sugary drinks in these locales is expected to prevent thousands of new cases of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, as well as lower health care costs.
“The new sugary drink tax will provide multiple benefits to Seattle’s children,” said Dr. Jim Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America. “It also puts public health and community well-being above Big Soda’s multi-billion dollar profits. A third of all children are predicted to develop diabetes and the soda industry is a part of the problem because it targets children, especially black and Hispanic youngsters. The tax is a proven way to reduce consumption of unhealthy sugary beverages and to generate funds to address important community needs and efforts to counter industry marketing.”
The Seattle community organization Got Green, called the passage of the sugary drink tax a significant victory for working families in Seattle. “The new law puts closing the food security gap as the number one investment priority for the tax revenue,” said Tammy Nguyen, Got Green Food Access Co-Organizer. "The majority of the revenue will go toward expanding healthy food programs for the communities that need them most.”
Additional sugary drink taxes are being considered in cities, counties and states around the nation. The win in Seattle will undoubtedly inspire more to join the growing movement to adopt this progressive policy, challenge Big Soda, and drive down consumption of sugary drinks.