Soda distributors in Seattle will soon pay a new tax on sugary beverage.
Soda distributors in Seattle will soon pay a new tax on sugary beverages. Kevork Djansezian/getty

Seattle City Council members this afternoon approved a 1.75 cents per ounce tax on distributors of sugary drinks, but rejected efforts to lessen the disproportional impact the tax is projected have on low-income consumers.

Politicians in City Hall have wavered on whether to tax diet sodas, which are preferred by a wealthier, whiter demographic. When Mayor Ed Murray first proposed the tax, he didn't plan to include diet drinks. A formal proposal sent to the city council in April flip-flopped on that position. In committee discussions, the city council removed diet drinks. Worried about passing a sales tax that disproportionately hits people of color, Council Member Lisa Herbold last week proposed adding diet drinks back into the legislation. Her council colleagues rejected that proposal.

"The scientific evidence is just not there yet" to show that sweeteners used in diet drinks are as harmful as sugar used in regular soda, Council Member Tim Burgess said today.

Herbold made one more attempt to add diet to list today, proposing a reduction in the tax rate and an addition of sugary coffee drinks. Herbold argued the tax as written was "punitive" because, on the average bottle of soda, the fee would amount to a higher tax rate than those charged on cigarettes, cannabis, and alcohol. The Seattle Human Rights Commission raised similar concerns.

"I drink diet soda," Herbold said today. "I drink sweetened coffee. I'm trying to tax the unhealthy products I myself consume. I don't think it's fair not to spread cost... to consumers like me."

But again her council colleagues rejected her idea. Only Council Member Rob Johnson joined Herbold in supporting her amendment. (Herbold's likely ally, Kshama Sawant, was absent for today's vote.)

The tax gets really confusing when it comes to the minutiae of the world of sugary drinks served by your neighborhood barista. Ready for this shit? Those syrup pumps that add vanilla flavoring or whatever to your lattes will NOT be covered by the tax because lattes are milk based. But if you prefer pomegranate, flower blossom yoga teas, tough luck. Without the milk, you're getting bilked (by the government to pay for public services).

Council Member Bruce Harrell, meanwhile, tried to take drinks off the list, exempting coffee drinks and bubble teas, a move he said in a meeting earlier today was intended to benefit businesses. But the majority of the council rejected that, too.

Soda distributors will likely pass the tax onto consumers. Funding from the tax will support public health and education programs, including possibly food banks and meal programs, thanks to an amendment from Council Member Debora Juarez. "Everyone in the city should have a right to eat," Juarez said today.

Public comment ahead of today’s vote echoed potential benefits of the tax pushed during weeks of committee meetings and media coverage. Public health advocates spoke in favor of the tax and urged the council not to exempt sugary coffee drinks. James Krieger, a doctor and University of Washington professor, said the five pumps of syrup that go into a 20 ounce Starbucks coffee drink is the equivalent of 60 six spoons of sugar.

Reducing the tax rate or exempting other drinks would “reduce critical funding for important programs that will directly benefit our communities,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of the nonprofit El Centro de la Raza.

Business representatives and some union members spoke against the tax, arguing it would disproportionately hit consumers and business owners of color. "It is regressive and it hurts working people and the poor the most and it will result in the loss of good family jobs," said Teamsters Local 174 business agent Pete Lamb during public comment today.

In a statement after today's vote, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce CEO Maud Daudon said the Chamber was "deeply disappointed" and called the tax "yet another barrier that will make operating a small business more complicated in Seattle."

Those worried about job losses often cite Philadelphia, where Pepsi this year blamed layoffs on that city's soda tax. The city, in response, slammed Pepsi for laying workers off even as it makes billions in profit. The proposal approved in Seattle today includes a $1.5 million allocation for job training programs.

The question now is whether opponents will challenge the tax through a referendum, forcing a public vote on the issue. If they decide to take that approach, they'll only have a month from the day the mayor signs the legislation to gather signatures to try to make it on the November ballot.

A representative for Keep Seattle Livable for All, the coalition fighting the tax, previously declined to answer directly whether the group planned to pursue a ballot measure.