New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has a controversial idea: Prohibit food stamp recipients from using them to buy sugary sodas.
While, as a rule, I would prefer that the government stay out of people’s choices about what to eat, drink, or smoke, and who to invite into their beds, and while I admire the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo for much of the corporate-responsibility work they do, particularly around the environment, I say: Bravo!
Why? Tax dollars ought not to be used to subsidize people’s purchases of sugared drinks that make them fat and sick, and lead them to then require more government support when they enter the subsidized health-care system.
This isn’t a simple or clear-cut issue. It wouldn’t, I think, be smart or practical to try to exclude other fatty foods from the food stamp program. In fact, if we are going to try to guide people’s choices, I’d rather see incentives given to those who use food stamps to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, ideally locally grown. (See Chef to the rich, advocate for the poor.)
But the government is drawing lines already. Food stamps cannot be use to buy cigarettes, beer, wine or prepared foods from restaurants. The question is, on which side of that line should sodas belong?
In an op-ed today in The Times, Thomas Farley, New York City’s health commissioner, and Richard Daines, New York state’s health commissioner, make the argument well:
Over the past 30 years, consumption of sugary beverages in the United States has more than doubled, in parallel with the rise in obesity, to the point where nearly one-sixth of an average teenager’s calories now come from these drinks. Some 57 percent of adults in New York City and 40 percent of children in New York City public schools are overweight or obese.
…And substantial health care costs arise from this trend: obesity-related illnesses cost New York State residents nearly $8 billion a year in medical costs, or $770 per household. All of us pay the price through higher taxes.
Poor people will still be able buy sodas, of course–just not with taxpayer money.
For companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which will fight this idea through the American Beverage Association, the message here should be clear: your future does not like in selling sugary sodas that are bad for people’s health, at least not if you want to be seen as companies that do good. Increasingly, these products will be stigmatized, as tobacco has been over the years. To its credit, the beverage industry has begun to recognize this by diversifying its product mix and removing full-calorie sodas from schools.
The mayor’s proposal now goes to the Obama administration’s agriculture department. Should be interesting to see how the feds respond.