Seattle soda tax could benefit health in communities of color, supporters say

Sodas on display in a store’s refrigerated case. (Photo by the Everyman Project via Flickr.)

Seattle’s proposed soda tax would bring in money earmarked for education — but supporters say the real benefits would be the improvement in health in communities of color.

The Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition, which is being led by the Foundation for Healthy Generations, says that sugary beverages like soda and fruit-flavored drinks are the single largest source of added sugars in the American diet, and that soda companies spend millions marketing products aimed at youth — particularly youth of color.

“Because these communities disproportionately consume these products, they also see the most immediate benefits because consumption goes down,” said the coalition’s spokesperson Aaron Pickus.

The proposed tax would apply to sweetened beverages including soda, energy and sports drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened teas and ready-to-drink coffee sold in cans and bottles. It would not apply to 100 percent fruit juice drinks, in-store prepared coffee beverages, infant formula and medicine.

The tax would be 1 and 3/4 cents per ounce, or 21 cents for a 12-oz. can of soda or $1.18 cents on a 2-liter bottle. The original proposal only taxed sugar-sweetened drinks, but now also includes “diet” drinks sweetened artificially, raising the amount expected per year from $16 million to $23 million.

Mayor Ed Murray proposed that most of the money would go to fund education programs aiming to reduce the education disparity between white students and underrepresented students of color. A portion of the money would also go toward expanding healthy food access.

But at a recent public hearing on the tax, councilmembers Debora Juarez and Lisa Herbold questioned why only 14 percent of the money would be dedicated to health. Herbold argued that a greater portion of the soda tax money should be dedicated to health.

Supporters hope a soda tax will discourage people from buying the beverages despite increases in marketing.

The University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reported that in 2013 black youth saw twice as many ads for junk food and beverages than white youth — which also was increase in this disparity from 2010. Beverage companies also increased advertising for sugary drinks and energy shots on Spanish-language TV by 44 percent in 2013 versus 2010.

“The trend is going in the wrong direction,” Pickus said.

Pickus said a soda tax could have effects similar to the policies that made it harder to market and sell tobacco to youth, setting a precedent for this type of approach.

Other national groups have connected the marketing of sugary drinks in communities of color with increased health risks. When marketing aimed at black and Hispanic youth promotes products with poor nutritional value, the health of those communities suffers disproportionately, according to the Rudd Center report.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest makes the same argument, saying that black and Hispanic communities are targeted for marketing by beverage companies, and those populations also see higher rates of obesity and diabetes as opposed to white populations.

Vox also argued that Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner protest ad was part of a history of “exploiting black and Latino youth.”

KIRO-7 reports that the council could vote on the soda tax next month.