Over-caffeinated

September 03, 2002

OH, SEATTLE, America's envy in the 1990s -- how the trendy have fallen. Microsoft's under siege by the feds. Boeing spirited its headquarters away. Grunge is so over. And in the latest blow to the city that hooked the nation on far too many pricey cups of coffee, Seattle may adopt a 10-cent-a-cup tax on every espresso drink.

Holy Starbucks! It's bad enough Seattle turned every gas station in the country into a latte bar, making it almost impossible to find a mug of plain old Joe under a buck. Now it's brewing up a far more pungent aroma: America's first luxury tax on coffee.

With tobacco and alcohol pretty much socially unacceptable, coffee may be the last tolerated vice -- and fertile grounds for attack. In Berkeley, Calif., there's a move to ban sales of brewed coffee unless it's grown without hurting the environment or exploiting field workers.

In Seattle, the tax -- known as Initiative 77 -- is a serious concoction, of course. Backers, insisting they love java as much as the next guy, would use the money for needed child care and preschool programs.

The city's Chamber of Commerce -- through a group called JOLT, for Joined to Oppose the Latte Tax -- says it's an irrational tax on small business born of reverse snobbery toward those who casually toss down $3.50 iced grande mocha lattes. As a letter writer to one of Seattle's papers put it: Taxing disposable diapers might be "more reasonable," given the purpose.

From Starbucks headquarters, which takes in more than $250 million every four weeks from more than 5,000 outlets worldwide, the only comment comes in writing. It first stresses at length all the company's good work for young kids, before concluding, "We do not fully understand" the tax's logic.

Nevertheless, Initiative 77 proponents gathered enough signatures to put it before Seattle's City Council, which now must make it law, place it on the ballot this fall or put it on with a competing proposal -- or stall so a citywide vote is put off for a year.

For Seattle, the real issue here may be way too much caffeine. The tax's backers say it will deliver at least $7 million. At 10 cents a cup, that's 70 million lattes, cappuccinos and the like a year -- or almost 200,000 costly, store-bought cups every single day.

In a city with less than a half million adults, that's quite a lot of espresso, thank you. Decaf anyone?

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