Seattle: beverage tax backers on sugar high

The city of Seattle has now put its stiff new 1.75 cents per ounce tax on sugary beverages (text of bill) into effect, and Costco managers in the tech city, much to their credit, have not hesitated to post signs informing shoppers of its impact. According to a reporter’s photo, the sign atop a Gatorade Frost Variety Pack lists the regular Costco price of $15.99 along with $10.34 in newly added Seattle tax for a total of $26.33. Helpfully, an adjacent sign advises shoppers that the same item “is also available at our Tukwila and Shoreline locations without City of Seattle Sweetened Beverage Tax.”

Following KIRO7 News coverage of the story, Scott Drenkard of the Tax Foundation wrote a funny Twitter thread on the positions taken by the various advocates:

  • “First they interview people at the Costco who are rightfully shocked at how high prices on soda and sports drinks are now (they are almost doubled).”
  • “Then they interview a public health advocate who says ‘that’s right! We want these prices to change people’s behavior and slow sales!’”
  • “Then they talk to the consumer, ‘think you’ll change your behavior, maybe even shop somewhere else?’ And she’s like, ‘ya the Tukwila store is close enough.’ Then they ask a city council member if this will hurt local biz, who says ‘there is no data’ suggesting that.”
  • “Then the SAME public health advocate says that people won’t respond to price increases, shopping elsewhere because it isn’t ‘worth their while.’”
  • “You can’t have it both ways people! The tax is either big enough to elicit behavior change, which would slow sales and hurt local biz and potentially reduce calories, or it isn’t. Get your stories straight!”

In 2016 I wrote about Philadelphia’s soda tax that “while all taxes are evaded to some extent, excise taxes are especially subject to evasion based on local geography”, and followed up on the Philly measure’s possible openings for unlawful evasion and eventual public corruption. Seattle authorities intend to use the hoped-for $15 million revenue stream to fund various causes and organizations including an effort to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to urban neighborhoods, even though the once-voguish “food deserts” theory blaming dietary choices on the retail environment has suffered one debunking after another in recent years. [cross-posted and expanded from Cato at Liberty]

P.S. I used to see this constantly from trial lawyers and their advocates on the question of whether it was a good thing for liability insurance rates to rise reflecting the big liberalization of tort recovery that was going on when I wrote The Litigation Explosion. Higher rates were socially desirable, they would say, because they would expose and discourage dangerous actors, such as incompetent doctors and drivers. There followed a big public reaction when it turned out it was not so easy to pick out bad apples ahead of time and that entire specialties like obstetricians and neurosurgeons were having to pay massive premiums. They then switched to the position that there was no connection between expected future payouts and liability premiums, that the problem was insurance companies being greedy, and that liability insurance rates should be frozen by law.

P.P.S. “Philadelphia implemented a 1.5-cent tax on soda in January of last year. …By August, the marketing firm Catalania found a 55 percent decline in the sale of carbonated soft drinks within the city limits — and a 38 percent jump in stores just outside of Philadelphia. Revenue from Philadelphia’s soda tax has also proven disappointing, coming in at $7 million below projections for fiscal year 2017.” [Christian Britschgi, Reason]





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