Is Seattle’s proposed soda tax also a tax on sugary lattes?

Would your caramel or mocha latte be affected by Seattle’s proposed sweet-beverage tax? A final City Council vote is expected Monday, but doubts remain about how the tax would work.

With a sweetened-beverage tax proposed for Seattle, most of the buzz has been about whether the tax would cover diet soda in addition to regular pop.

But the Emerald City isn’t known for soda pop — it’s known for coffee, including the sugar-charged lattes that have helped make Starbucks a worldwide superbrand.

So, what about the venti white-chocolate mocha your favorite barista makes just the way you like it, with soy milk and no whip? The idea behind the tax is to reduce consumption of sugary beverages. At Starbucks, that drink contains 66 grams of sugar — similar to a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Though the City Council is expected to take a final vote Monday, there are still doubts about how exactly the tax might affect made-to-order coffee drinks.

Podcast: Debating Seattle’s proposed tax on sugary drinks — and diet soda, too

The latest plan calls for a tax of 1.75 cents per ounce on the distributors of sugary beverages and syrups used in beverages. The revenue — about $15 million annually to start out, would fund healthful-eating and education programs.

Bottled coffees, such as those made by Starbucks to be sold in stores, have from the start been included in the list of taxable drinks.

So have soda pop, sports and energy drinks such as Red Bull and Gatorade, some fruit drinks such as Sunny D and sweetened teas such as those sold by Arizona.

But when Mayor Ed Murray initially proposed the tax, in February, his plan explicitly exempted “in-store prepared coffee beverages,” such as sugary lattes.

That changed in April, when Murray sent his legislation to the council. He was no longer exempting in-store prepared coffee beverages, along with baby formula, medicine and 100 percent fruit juices.

Instead, milk beverages would be exempted along with those. Which begged the question — what about sugary lattes, which are made with syrups but are mostly milk?

At the time, a Murray spokesman said syrups used in beverages such as coffees would be taxed, with limited exceptions, “to be determined in the rule-making process.”

That process happens after the council passes an ordinance, when bureaucrats are asked to draw up the details the politicians didn’t address.

Though council members have discussed Murray’s plan at multiple committee meetings, revised it by removing diet drinks and cleared it for a final vote, the ordinance still doesn’t say anything explicit about pricey, made-to-order coffee drinks.


So what does it say? For beverages made with syrups and other concentrates, the tax would be calculated on the “largest volume of beverage that would typically be produced by the amount of concentrate.”

In other words, a box of soda-fountain syrup would be taxed on…

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