The Seattle Lab has another magic elixir – a tax on some sweetened beverages like sports drinks and soda – hyped as a much-needed curative for unhealthy dieting.
We can’t know the long-term impact of a 1.75 cent per ounce tax on some (but not all) sweetened beverages because knowing that requires time.
What we do know is that the reaction to the tax has been less than … effervescent. Within hours of its implementation, consumers began complaining about higher prices and small grocers and big box stores alike were communicating a very clear message: this stinks.
We also know that even before Seattle’s soda tax went into effect there was plenty of evidence to predict that Seattleites would soon join a club of communities with flattened enthusiasm for sugary drink tax schemes.
Cook County, Illinois – home to Chicago – passed a sweetened drink tax on Nov. 10, 2016. The vote of the county board was as close as it gets – 8-8 with a tie-breaking vote cast by the board president who was, not coincidentally, the leading proponent of the tax. The tax went into effect on Aug. 2, 2017. How successful was the rollout? By Oct. 11, 2017 the Cook County Board had voted 15-2 to repeal the entire fiasco. Reports of job losses and dislocations, consumers shopping on the cheaper side of the county border and opposition to the inherent regressivity of a tax on pop doomed Cook County’s myopic vision of a slimmer, healthier future.
If you can believe it, the saga of Philadelphia’s soda tax is darker. There, city elders have lashed themselves to defending a similar, though not identical, soda tax that went into effect at the beginning of 2017. Their dedication to a bad idea is working out as well as one might expect. Revenues are far less than anticipated. Monies collected are flowing into the city’s general fund instead of to funds for the programs promised. (Early campaigning for the proposal focused on the bright shiny object of pre-K programs.) Sales of alcoholic beverages (untaxed even when containing sugar) rose sharply between Dec. 2016 and Dec. 2017. (Granted, that’s a windfall; Philadelphia levies a 10 percent tax on the sale of alcoholic beverages. But that shift in consumer behavior has to be seen as a backfire in terms of health outcomes.) Other reports find a black market for untaxed soft drinks now operates in the City of Brotherly Love.
The phrase dueling unmitigated disasters comes to mind. It’s important to point out that the entire experience of Cook County and the earliest scenes in Philadelphia were well-known to backers of the Seattle plan and exposed a recessive trait that somehow survives in Seattle’s politics: the aversion to abandoning or modifying bad ideas, despite ample evidence. This flaw won’t soon be bred out of local leadership, but it can be isolated. Voters statewide could quarantine themselves from yet another mad science experiment if an initiative to ban other cities and counties from enacting soda taxes in Washington state gets enough signatures to make it to the ballot.
Passing a soda tax ban would represent more than a pushback against leadership’s nanny impulse. It would be a strong gesture of resistance to a persistent Seattle-fueled rush to rapidly expand the footprint of bad policies even before they’ve been beta-tested. It’s time to deliver that message in a way that lawmakers in Olympia, where the balance of power now favors a lean into Seattle’s preferred “solutions,” will hear.
Seattle has hatched more than its fair share of experimental policy ideas; forced mutations imposed on a natural order in which buyers and sellers in markets for things like labor, housing – now even soda pop – would otherwise find balance. Unfortunately, Seattle’s policy workshop functions like a genetic lab that has hired only creative engineers and no ethicists – the potential benefits are too often not appropriately assessed alongside risks.
Consider minimum wage. Policy designers and decision-makers should have cared much more about knowing whether a therapy of radical wage mandates would do harm before they moved to mainline the concoction into the bloodstream of the entire state. They should have cared, but they didn’t. They are showing a similar lack of concern for whether a soda tax will ever achieve its stated goal of improving health or even generate significant revenue.
Our leaders should know that we will empower them to get it right, to road-test and study ideas, and to peel politics apart from policy. We also cannot always assume that they will abandon bad ideas even when the evidence is plain to see. We need to be willing to step in and shut down a bad idea when the politicians will not. We need to step up and ban the soda tax.
Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.