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Public Health director proclaims Seattle’s sugary drink tax a success

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(The Center Square) – Six years since Seattle’s sweetened beverage tax has been implemented, the region’s public health lead has declared it a success.

Public Health – Seattle & King County Public Director Faisal Khan briefed the King County Public Health Board on various announcements in the region on Thursday. Khan spoke on recent findings on the city’s sweetened beverage tax.

“The sweetened beverage tax is now scientifically proven and statistically proven to be associated with a decrease in body mass index amongst children,” Khan said in the board meeting.

Khan is referring to a recent study from the American Medical Association regarding Seattle’s sweetened beverage tax and the change associated with body mass index amongst children.

The results of the study suggested that the sweetened beverage tax in Seattle may be associated with a small but reasonable reduction in body mass index [BMI] among children living within the Seattle city limits. But, the authors caution that few studies have assessed the association between sweetened beverage taxes and health outcomes.

The study looked at 6,313 children living in the Seattle area and a nearby non-taxed area. Results found that the tax was associated with a modest decrease in BMI among children living in Seattle compared with children living in the nearby non-taxed areas who were receiving care within the same health care systems.

“It goes without saying that this is a major public health success,” said Khan.

Seattle’s sweetened beverage tax revenues were approximately $21 million in 2022. That is a 11% increase [$2 million] from collected revenue from the tax in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the tax revenue to drop to a low of $17.3 million in 2020.

In 2019, the tax generated $22 million and about $23 million in 2018.

The city’s 2024 endorsed budget assumes that the sweetened beverage tax revenues would total $20.4 million in 2023 and $20.7 million in 2024, which is less than the $21 million the tax generated in 2022.

Sweetened beverage taxes have been implemented in seven U.S. cities including Seattle, Philadelphia, Oakland and San Francisco.

Seattle implemented the tax in 2018 to improve the health of residents by reducing the consumption of sugary drinks. Revenue raised by the tax also goes toward programs intended to increase access to healthy food and support child health and early learning.

The standard tax rate for the sweetened beverage tax is about 18 cents per ounce. There is a reduced tax rate for certified manufacturers of one cent per ounce.

Seattle taxpayers reported over 1.2 billion ounces, or approximately 9.3 million gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages distributed into the city in 2022. However, many of those ounces are consumed by non-Seattle residents.

Total reported ounces are still slightly below the 1.3 billion in 2019 but have increased 22.7% over 2020 consumption and 9.6% over 2021 consumption, according to the report.

Several academics have studied sweetened beverage taxes, and found mixed results.

One study from the University of Georgia in 2022 suggested that a sweetened beverage tax may be effective at lowering consumption of sugary drinks, but the effectiveness of the tax at reducing sugar intake overall was limited due to consumer buying alternative items with sugar.

Notably, the study found an increase in sugar from purchases of sweetened foods of about 4.3% following the introduction of the tax in Philadelphia and of 3.7% in the neighboring localities. The substitution to sugary foods in Philadelphia offset 19% of the decrease of sugar from sugary beverages.

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