A majority of Seattle residents supported the city’s new tax on sweetened beverages as it took effect, and saw it as a way to improve the public’s health, finds a new baseline report led by a University of Washington School of Public Health researcher.
“We found fairly high support for the tax in Seattle – 58 percent of the population approved it,” said Dr. Jessica Jones-Smith, associate professor of health services and epidemiology and a core member of the School’s nutritional sciences faculty. In addition, more than half of low-income respondents approved of the measure, she said.
Dr. Jones-Smith is co-leading an evaluation of the tax with researchers from Public Health – King County & Seattle and Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Part of the tax revenues – more than $500,000 a year – were earmarked for evaluating the impact of the tax, including economic, health and behavioral outcomes.
The tax took effect Jan. 1 and imposes a 1.75 cents-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, payable by distributors. It exempts diet sodas and sugary coffee drinks if the primary ingredient is milk. The tax was intended to discourage consumption of sugary beverages while funding programs to boost healthy eating among low-income populations, support early learning and more.
“We’re excited. This is a tax that might improve the public’s health,” Dr. Jones-Smith said. “If people’s behavior changes, that’s great. If people don’t stop buying and consuming sweetened beverages, we still have this new revenue that’s being invested in programs that may also improve the public’s health.”
The levy raised more than $10 million in revenue during the first six months of the tax, according to city officials.
Researchers don’t know yet whether the tax has changed behavior, but they are collecting and analyzing data this summer and should have a better idea by mid-October, Dr. Jones-Smith said. Researchers are tracking prices and studying how the tax has affected beverage consumption and other aspects of children’s diets among low-income families living in Seattle. They are also studying norms and attitudes among adults.
A baseline survey taken before the tax was implemented questioned 851 residents of Seattle. The responses were weighted to represent the city in terms of age, race and ethnicity, gender and income. Results were compared with similar responses from people living outside the city.
Among the key findings were majority support for the tax and the idea that it would improve children’s health and wellbeing as well as the public’s health more generally. More than 80 percent thought consuming sugary drinks caused serious health problems, including dental health problems, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Researchers found that only 16 percent of those surveyed in Seattle consumed one or more sugary drinks a day, compared to 50 percent of adults nationally.