TCS Daily


Latte Levy

By Jeremy Lott - July 2, 2002 12:00 AM

Seattle is one of the more meddlesome, taxophilic cities in the U.S. - so much so that the Seattle Times last year threatened to split town if the city bureaucracy didn't back off and if the government didn't reform itself. The emerald city is also one of the most - if not the most - highly caffeinated cities around, having spawned Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee and the whole espresso culture that casts its wonderfully fresh brewed buzz over most of the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the United States.

However, if a new initiative petition gathers enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, residents of Seattle may have to choose which they like more, their coffee or "the children." At least, that's how the issue is being framed: An alliance called the Early Learning and Care Committee (ELCC) is seeking to add a 10 cent surcharge to every espresso beverage ordered to subsidize pre-school workers and public school teachers. With the usual string of caveats and qualifiers - this doesn't apply to drip coffee, it would not kick in unless businesses have revenues of $50,000 a year - the ELCC estimates that the latte levy would raise $7 to $10 million per annum.

The money, which could have been shaken out of one of Bill Gates' pant legs, is a pittance compared to the potential social fallout. Many Seattleites are incredulous, to the point of anger. The Seattle Times editorial on the subject began "Taxing lattes? In Seattle? ... [W]hy not put a statewide tax on Washington apples?"

Responding to survey data that was popularized by the ELCC which showed three fourths of Washington State voters supporting the tax, a writer for the alternative weekly The Stranger speculated that Seattleites must not have "pick[ed] up the phone when the pollsters called." He also quoted an angry latte-sipping male who declared the tax to be "complete bullshit." The Seattle Post Intelligencer chimed in with a poll of its own, which showed the latte-drinker's sentiment to be widespread: 68.6 nays, 27.2 yays and 4.2 Idunnos.

That faux libertine sentiment is likely to hold for the general election, but many are puzzled by the fact that this is even being considered in Seattle. They should not be so naïve. Given the strong prohibitionist strain of modern Seattle liberalism - voters had already previously approved sin taxes on cigarettes and alcohol - it was only a matter of time before financial necessity collided with public health arguments about the dangers of caffeine.

For several years, professional worriers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and similar institutions have been seeking to expose the possible bad effects of caffeine consumption, and lobbying for its further regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. As an addictive drug, caffeine has been "linked" to of all manner of malady (osteoporosis, ADD, stress, bad moods) and a real tobacco-like effort has been pitched to stigmatize its use.

This campaign, in its most undiluted form, was on display in a 1997 cover story in The Nation, "Generation Wired." Author Helen Cordes wrote about the perils of "Caffeine Inc." - "soda barons" and a "proliferation of coffee shops" - which is "targeting teens" with "aggressively marketed" caffeinated beverages that near the "legal limit" for added caffeine (6 milligrams per ounce). "The caffeine lobby," Cordes wrote, had even "borrowed a tactic or two from the nicotine gang" by financing its own scientific studies to rebut public health experts. (Which brings to mind an old saying so cynical that it has to be French: "What a wicked animal. When attacked it defends itself.")

While the anti-buzz lobby has not, as yet, had many notable legislative or regulatory successes, it has managed to make the consumption of caffeine marginally more suspect. It has come to be seen as a sin of the venial and fairly easily forgiven variety. But sins against the body - smoking, drinking, eating fatty foods - no longer enjoy the same blanket tolerance that they once did. Those who indulge in such things are seen, by activists, as a bottomless piggybank to fund government programs: the price they pay to continue enjoying their vices.

Here's hoping that the residents of Seattle send the rascals packing. If the vote goes the other way, I'm not sure that Washington State could survive the caffeine headache.

Jeremy Lott is the 2002 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern for Reason Magazine. He can be reached at lott@reason.com.
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