Tracking the soda tax

Because voters passed Washington State Initiative 1634 in November, Seattle is the only city in the state that can legally tax sugar-sweetened beverages. But the Seattle tax remains in place, and its effects are being evaluated by researchers from Public Health – Seattle & King County, the University of Washington, and Children’s Hospital. According to the Seattle Times, the first 9 months of the tax generated almost $17 million in new revenue – considerably more than the original $15 million estimate for the entire year.

Photo by Josh McLain on Unsplash

The tax took effect one year ago, on January 1, 2018. Before the tax was implemented, the evaluation team collected baseline data, which they presented to Seattle City Council in August. Briefly, the report found:

  1. Beverage prices were similar in the City of Seattle and comparison areas in King County. When there were differences, Seattle prices tended to be higher. Across all areas and types of beverages, large stores had lower prices than small stores.
  2. Consumption of sugary beverages was lower in Seattle than in comparison areas and lower than the national average. The top 2 beverages consumed by Seattle children were water and flavored milk (neither subject to the new tax); among taxed beverages, Seattle children were most likely to consume soda and sugary fruit-flavored juice. These results differed from the popular impression – reported by consumer and business representatives who participated in focus groups – that sugary beverage consumption among children was common.
  3. Economic impact of the tax. While Seattle adults participating in surveys did not believe the tax would negatively affect small businesses or result in job loss, representatives of some businesses and elected officials expressed the opposite view. Business representatives gave mixed responses about whether they would absorb the tax or pass it on to clients and consumers. While consumers had mixed opinions about how the tax would affect their own purchasing and consumption behaviors, they felt the tax would financially impact low-income people and communities of color.
  4. Support for the tax. Most Seattle adults surveyed supported the Sweetened Beverage Tax and believed the tax would help improve the health and well-being of children and of the general public. Support for the tax was lower among survey participants with lower incomes and those who were non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic Asian.  While representatives of consumer and business groups expressed mixed support for the tax, they more consistently supported putting tax revenues toward programs to improve healthy food access for lower-income populations.

Besides raising money for nutrition education and assistance to low-income residents for the purchase of healthy foods, has the tax affected purchasing and dietary behaviors of people in Seattle? The first (6-month) evaluation report was submitted to the City in September and should become available to the public early in 2019. As reported in Community Health Indicators, results of the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey showed a decline in daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by King County’s middle- and high-school students before the tax took effect.

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