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Here’s what yes and no votes mean for the ‘grocery tax,’ Washington Initiative 1634

Voters will decide this November whether they want to avoid the possibility of a local grocery tax, such as the Seattle soda tax, by voting on Initiative 1634.

What it means: A “yes” vote would prohibit local governments – but not the state – from imposing new taxes or fees, or increasing existing taxes, on grocery items, defined as “any raw or processed food or beverage, or any ingredient thereof, intended for human consumption,” according to the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

  • Alcohol, tobacco and marijuana products are not included under this definition.

  • Many say the measure’s true aim is to stop more cities from implementing a soda tax like Seattle’s, which generated more than $10 million in revenue in the first six months – putting it on pace to top the expected $14.8 million raised in 2018.
  • Washington state law already exempts most groceries from retail sales taxes, except for prepared foods, soft drinks or dietary supplements.
  • Right now, though, local governments have broad authority to enact taxes on retailers. This initiative would limit that authority to exclude groceries.
  • A “no” vote wouldn’t enact a sales tax – it would simply continue to allow local governments to impose a tax in the future.

Who’s backing the initiative: Yes! To Affordable Groceries, a political action committee, has spent more than $15 million supporting the measure, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Soda companies have given millions to the cause: $9.6 million from the Coca-Cola Company, $7.2 million from Pepsico, $2 million from Dr. Pepper Snapple Group and $237,000 from Red Bull.

The committee says it has the support of small businesses, chambers of commerce, farmers’ groups, the Washington Food Industry Association and the American Beverage Association, and is “taking a stand to bring fairness to our tax structure, to protect jobs and neighborhood businesses, and to prevent increased taxation on the food and beverages upon which we depend every day.”

Supporters say taxes like Seattle’s soda tax cause retailers to raise prices on other grocery items, harming consumers.

Who’s against it: The WA Healthy Kids Coalition has received $16,000 in contributions, according to the Public Disclosure Commission, mostly from health organizations like the American Cancer Society. The group is leading the opposition, claiming that the measure “has nothing to do with keeping our food affordable,” but is a tool for the soda industry that is “only concerned with their profits.”

Other opponents include the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition and the Permanent Defense PAC, a progressive group.

The Seattle Times Editorial Board, The Columbian Editorial Board and The News Tribune Editorial Board all encourage a “no” vote.

What an expert says: Jesse Jones-Smith, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said she hasn’t seen any evidence that the initiative is aimed at anything other than containing the spread of soda taxes.

As an obesity epidemiologist, she’s “interested in finding ways to decrease obesity,” and said that from a public health perspective, “having more cities implement taxes on soda would be a better route.” Jones-Smith said evidence from soda taxes enacted in cities such as Philadelphia and Berkeley, California, “points to soda taxes to be an effective mechanism for decreasing soda consumption,” which lowers sugar and calorie intake.

Jones-Smith said she’s heard criticism from the soda industry that soda taxes result in job loss, due to decreased soda consumption. But she cited a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health that found soda taxes do not have a negative impact on state-level employment, because declines in soda industry employment are offset by increased employment in other areas.

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