Sugary Drink Sales Drop in Seattle

Decline follows city-imposed soda tax.

February 25, 2020

SEATTLE—Sales of sugar-enhanced drinks dropped about 30.5% in Seattle during the months after the city began taxing them, according to The Columbian newspaper. At the same time, sales in no-tax Portland declined only 10.5%, suggesting sales in Seattle dropped much more than they would have without the charge.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the first to measure the impact of Seattle’s sugary beverage tax on sales in the city, and it may bolster claims by supporters that the policy is working as intended.

“From a public health perspective, this is good,” said Jay Krieger, the University of Washington professor and head of the nonprofit Healthy Food America. “People are purchasing less sugary drinks, and we know that sugary drinks are associated with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes.”

The UIC researchers compared sales from February through September 2018 to sales during the same periods in 2016 and 2017. They used Nielsen retail-scanner data from retailers, which included an estimated 45% of all store sales. The study didn’t include data from restaurants, cafeterias and vending machines. In other cities with soda taxes, such as Philadelphia, soda sales dropped and then stabilized.

Seattle’s tax of 1.75 cents per fluid ounce took effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The tax is charged to distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages, who can pass it on to stores, who pass it on to consumers. Many retailers and consumers, along with the unionized beverage-industry workers, opposed the tax, charging that poor people would be hit hardest by increased prices.

The tax raised about $22 million in 2018, which was $7 million more than city officials had predicted. The funds go to the Fresh Bucks program, which helps low-income residents buy fruits and vegetables.

The researchers also examined soda sales within two miles of Seattle and Portland to account for people who may have gone outside the city limits to buy their beverages. Sales dropped slightly in the border areas around both cities.

For more on beverage taxes, see “A Costly Pour” in the October 2017 issue of NACS Magazine.