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Seattle's soda tax is hella confusing (especially if you like Clamato juice)

I don’t normally pick fights.

But I had just gotten the last of four rabies shots at Bartell Drugs, and I was feeling punchy. And thirsty. I wanted a diet ginger ale – you know, something to take away the sting of the needle and the memory of getting attacked by wild dogs on a recent trip to Thailand.

Since sugary drinks are taxed in Seattle now (as of the New Year, 1.75 cents per fluid ounce), the bev case was a mess of red tag confusion. Each row of taxed sodas had a sign announcing the price change. For Pepsi to Pepsi comparison, that’s $2.09 for diet, $2.49 for regular.

Except that it wasn’t so simple. The shelf signs made it look like the 7UPs weren’t being taxed. Nor the Mexican soda, which totally has sugar in it.

At checkout, the clerk told me she taxed my DIET, zero sugar, ginger ale. Um, no.

Look, I said, attempting my best Seattle Nice. I’ve been covering this “sweetened beverage tax” story since the former Seattle mayor proposed the idea. I know that diet sodas are exempt. 

The clerk called the manager, and I wasn’t charged the tax. Feeling somewhat vindicated and a little confused, I wondered what beverages actually are taxed.

So I went to another Bartell Drugs, one near my work, and bought eight drinks: Clamato juice (clam + tomato juice, beloved by Canadians, apparently excellent in a bloody Caesar), diet and regular Pepsi, grapefruit-flavored Coco Libre, a tall boy of Starbucks coffee, a bottle of Dry cucumber soda, a Gatorade, and a Red Bull.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Red and white 'shelf talkers' indicate which beverages are subject to Seattle's new sweetened beverage tax.", "fid": "143328", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201803/bartells_bev_case_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Lisa Brooks"}]]And again, I got into it with a clerk, who wasn’t sure what drinks had the tax.  She told me the Clamato, with its 16 grams of sugar, was not taxed, for example. And, the Coco Libre, with zero added sugar, WAS taxed.  The manager, who didn’t know at that point that I was a journalist, suggested I call my city council member.

Instead, I hit up the Seattle Finance Department. 

They told me the tax applies to bevs for humans that have one or more sweeteners. But there are exceptions.

Diet pop, obvs.

Baby formula does not get taxed.

Drinks that have milk as the primary ingredient – o-nay ax-tay.

Or ones in which water, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes (i.e. soy and almond) are one of the first two ingredients. This means that Seattle’s famed coffee bevs dodge this tax. Starbucks’ Cinnamon Dolce Latte, with its 41 grams of sugar in a grande, is not taxed.

Also, there’s a small manufacturer exemption – if the business has an income of $2 million or less, no tax.

There are some interesting little factoids in all of this:

The soda that Kroger sells is now cheaper than the tax on that soda.

Stores don’t collect the tax – that’s the distributor’s job. The distributors are jacking up prices to make up the difference, paid for by you, the drinker.

The money from the tax will eventually go to food banks, meal programs and public health programs that help people with diabetes and obesity.

Oh, and that Clamato? The city says it is taxable. So if you like your clammy tomato broth spiked with corn syrup, there is a price to pay – 21 cents for a 12-ounce plastic bottle.

P.S. Not discussed but equally important: Pop or soda?

[asset-images[{"caption": "#Clamatogate ", "fid": "143329", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201803/MF_Soda05.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer"}]]