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Bethel City Council Weighs Sugary Beverage Excise Tax Amid Pandemic


Bethel City Council has been weighing a potential new tax on sugary beverages. The tax is up for discussion in the Bethel City Council meeting on Dec. 8.

The ordinance would introduce a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. That’s a 17-cent increase for an average bottle of soda pop.

The tax was first debated in August, but the vote was tabled until now to give people more time to learn about its pros and cons. The city's parks and recreation committee, which introduced the tax, has taken this extra time to strengthen its argument. Mayor Michelle DeWitt, who sits on the committee, said that the committee has added supporting documents showing the link between sugary drinks and health problems.

“We’re specifically talking about tooth decay, about diabetes, obesity,” said DeWitt.

As for the timing, DeWitt said that she questioned whether a pandemic would be the right time to introduce a new tax.

“But I also recognized that the very things that we’re talking about, that are worsened by sugary beverages, are health conditions that have led to worse outcomes for COVID-19 patients,” DeWitt said.

The CDC says that diabetes and obesity can increase the risk of severe illness for COVID-19 patients of all ages.

The Parks and Recreation Committee said that the revenue from the tax could be used for priorities such as balancing the budget of the Y-K Fitness Center. Other priorities include a community gym project, parks, trails, and outdoor recreation. The committee has also discussed improving water taste in certain neighborhoods, particularly Bethel Heights.

The Alaska Beverage Association opposes the tax. The association has said that the tax places an unequal burden on lower-income families, who, according to one study, consume about 40% more sugary beverages than higher income families. Representatives from the association said that the tax would affect purchases made with SNAP cards. SNAP households tend to spend about 10% of their benefits on sugary beverages. The tax also covers syrups and powdered drinks, like Tang. Elders would be exempt from this excise tax.

Though the ordinance is up for debate tonight, DeWitt said that she hopes the council will table the vote once more. She’d like to raise more awareness about the health issues associated with sugary beverages.

Also in the Dec. 8 meeting, the council will weigh options for spending the nearly $2 million remaining in CARES Act funding before the Dec. 30 deadline.

The city council will also consider a transfer of property. The city currently owns the land underneath the ONC Multipurpose Building, also known as the old bowling alley. Council members may vote to direct the city manager to begin conveying that land to ONC.

Tune into KYUK to listen to Bethel City Council’s regular meeting, broadcast live at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 8.

Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.