A Blunt Instrument

As of January 1, 2018, Seattle has placed a tax — it’s officially called a “sweetened beverage recovery fee” — on sugary sodas and “sports drinks” like Gatorade.  Costco, the big box membership club retailer, has responded by placing signs showing consumers the specific impact of the tax on the Costco price for the product — and it’s a whopper.

video__sugar_tax_sticker_shock_0_10405324_ver1-0_640_360The Costco signs show that the Seattle tax adds $10.34 to a Gatorade 35-bottle variety pack — the kind you might buy if you were responsible for buying refreshments for your kid’s sports team to consume after a practice.  The price of the product was $15.99, but with the new tax the price is now $26.33.  The tax added $7.56 to a 36-can case of Dr. Pepper, bringing the price from $9.99 to $17.55.  Costco also helpfully added signage to explain the tax-related increase to its customers and remind them that they can avoid paying the additional cost simply by going to a nearby Costco located out of the city limits.  Some customers have told local TV stations they plan on doing just that.  There’s also been lots of social media chatter about the Costco signs and the impact of the tax on prices.

What’s the point of the tax?  Seattle evidently is concerned about obesity, which some studies have linked, at least in part, to the consumption of sugary soft drinks.  Seattle hopes that by imposing a substantial tax on soft drinks and “sports drinks,” it will incentivize people to make healthier choices.  But get this:  the tax exempts sweetened products from certified manufacturers with annual worldwide gross revenue of $2 million or less, and products from certified manufacturers with gross revenue of more than $2 million but less than $5 million pay a much smaller tax.  That exemption is a purely political decision that doesn’t make sense as a public health issue, because the size of the producer obviously doesn’t change whatever the impact of the product might be.  Seattle’s approach also focuses only on sweetened drinks, and doesn’t address products like ice cream, candy bars, “snack foods,” or frozen pizza that might also be said to contribute to “unhealthy lifestyles.”  And, of course, it doesn’t begin to address other issues that contribute directly to obesity, such as lack of exercise.

Other cities, like Chicago, have tried soft drink taxes and dumped them in the face of business opposition.  Costco is providing a salutary service by alerting its customers to the specific cost impact of the tax so they can factor it into their decision-making.  The Seattle experiment, as illuminated by the Costco signs, reminds us, yet again, that taxes are a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to trying to change behavior and achieve broader policies — and that taxes are always going to be affected by political considerations, too.

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