Editorials

I-1634 is a cynical try to stop city soda taxes

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A fight over soda taxes is back on the Washington statewide ballot this fall. But Initiative 1634 is a terrible idea, funded almost entirely by out of state soft-drink interests and mostly for their benefit.

Voters should reject I-1634 on Nov. 6. It’s a clear case of out-of-state interests meddling with local control by cities and counties.

In essence, the I-1634 campaign — calling itself the Yes! to Affordable Groceries PAC — is trying to scare voters into thinking that it isn’t just soda taxes but a broader tax on food that lurks around the corner if they don’t enact the measure.

Don’t be misled.

Sponsors’ real goal is to head off taxes on sugary drinks, which Seattle adopted in 2017 and is expected to generate more than $23 million a year.

The soft-drink industry has bankrolled the Yes on I-1634 team to the tune of $13 million – with only $20,000 coming from the Washington Food Industry Association and even less from other locals in their “coalition.”

By contrast, out-of-state contributions include more than $6.2 million from Coca Cola and $4.6 million from Pepsico.

What I-1634 is really about is preempting the spread of sugary drink taxes on a local government basis — which U.S. cities like Philadelphia, Berkeley and five others have done.

If voters enact this, it thwarts local control and blocks actions that take into account the real effects that sugary drinks have on obesity and the overall fattening of America.

It’s not clear how many other cities than Seattle would take the next step if I-1634 fails. Spokane considered but rejected such a tax.

And there is no community where placing a local tax on nutritious foods are even being considered, which sponsors admit.

But there is a shred of truth to the pro-1634 campaign. Washington state law does not expressly forbid local taxes like the one Seattle adopted.

What we take issue with is the way sponsors say this “loophole” opens the door to local taxes on food in general. That is a big stretch.

Sponsors even mentioned during our Editorial Board meeting – and their web site reinforces this – that taxes on meat could be pushed by animal rights activists.

But these are scare tactics. No one in any Washington city or elsewhere in the country is seriously talking about doing that, which sponsors admitted during our interviews.

And frankly, we believe that in this state friends would never let their friends tax raw, nutritious food.

Backers of I-1634 also claim the soda tax hurts poorer individuals more than wealthier ones. Their spokesmen say it could eliminate jobs or reduce hours for industry workers if demand for soft drinks drops.

These things may be partly true, because pop consumption might drop in favor of other healthier options that are also sold by the bottle or can. And this helps explain a coalition of food industry, beverage and convenience store groups that are part of the pro-1634 coalition.

But other industries have met falling demand with new products. The answer is to make and sell products that consumers find attractive and nutritious enough to buy.

Whatever voters decide, Seattle’s drinks tax will stay in place, because it took effect before Jan. 15 this year.

So this uneven taxation pattern won’t go away. But passing I-1634 would freeze the Seattle tax rate on sugary drinks at its current level, while barring other cities from imposing even a matching tax.

A coalition of health advocacy groups, which includes the American Cancer Society, has reported raising less than $10,000 to oppose this measure. The Healthy Kids Coalition is zeroing in on the measure’s preemption of local control.

That said, we have some sympathy for the argument that putting taxes on sugary drinks in some cities and not others could make things a little confusing for distributors.

There is a case to be made for a statewide debate in the Legislature over adding a tax for sugary drinks — just as sin taxes land on wine, beer, marijuana and other recreational products.

And if a few more cities pass a law taxing such drinks, it could spur the state to take its own action.

But, if any city ever acts on its own to tax truly nutritious foods, then our state lawmakers should step in firmly to block that. No sales tax should fall on unprepared foods that are clearly nutritious.

In the meantime, don’t fall for I-1634. Vote no.

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