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Seattle mayor plans to combat 'white privilege' with a tax on certain drinks

The mayor in Seattle recently added diet soda to his soda tax plan after being accused of racism. He said the addition will make the tax equal because white people consume diet soda more than people of color. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has made a controversial change to his proposed soda tax, which originally charged two cents per ounce on sugary drinks but was reduced to 1.75  cents per ounce. After critics accused his plan of being racist, Murray added a diet soda tax to his plan on Thursday, an addition that he says will make the tax equal because white people consume diet soda more than people of color.

Murray, a progressive Democrat, first proposed the soda tax in February, estimating that the additional revenue would amount to $16 million in its first year, which he said the city could then put toward a number of things, namely public education for low-income children. Since revising the plan to include diet drinks, Murray said that revenue would increase to $23 million.

He also said the tax would work as a deterrent and force consumers to make healthier choices.

"Healthy kids get better educations and are more likely to have a brighter future," Murray said.

Murray was not clear as to how the tax would be able to both stop consumers from drinking sodas, and also at the same time raise revenue from the purchases of soda. Logically, if people do not purchase soda, the city cannot collect tax on the purchase of soda. This is exactly what happened in Philadelphia, where Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also initially predicted the additional revenue provided by the tax — which he said would amount to $400 million in just three years — would fund universal pre-kindergarten for the city and repay a bond used to rebuild parks and recreational centers.

In fact, however, "sugary drink" purchases have plummeted in Philadelphia to such an extent that tax receipts have cratered, both on "sugary drinks" and groceries overall. The experience of Philadelphia shows the obvious: That cities can either prevent people from drinking sodas, or raise more money from taxes on sodas, but not both at the same time.

The Seattle tax would be paid by the drink distributing companies and would include any sweetened beverage, even those sweetened with noncaloric or artificial sweeteners. As the Seattle Times notes, it would include but not be limited to: Coke and other sodas, energy drinks, fruit juices, and even sweetened bottled coffee. It would exclude products that can boast 100 percent fruit juice, medicine, infant formulas, and milk-based drinks.

After researching the topic along with city council member Tim Burgess, Murray said that minorities and low-income families were more likely to consume regular soda, and the increased prices passed on to the consumer would affect them disproportionately. He also reasoned that consumers of diet soda were more likely to be "upper middle class white people," claiming it was "an issue of equity," and a way to tackle "white privileged institutionalized racism," according to Reason.

The city council is expected to tackle the proposal next month.

Murray did not comment on the other effects of Philadelphia's failed soda tax, which only just began in January and has already resulted in 30 to 50 percent increases in soda costs, massive layoffs for soda distributors and grocery story employees, and declining receipts in Philadelphia grocery stores as customers drive to neighboring suburbs to purchase groceries in order to avoid the tax. He also didn't suggest how Seattle planned to avoid these seemingly inevitable pitfalls.


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