Is it Ethical to Ban Food Stamp Users From Buying Soda?

Mayor Bloomberg proposes a two-year food stamp soda ban

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In another move aimed at improving New Yorkers' health by regulation, mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced a proposal to bar food stamp users from buying sodas with city funds. The proposed two-year ban, which is currently under consideration by the Department of Agriculture, is intended to combat obesity and diabetes. The mayor, who already banned trans-fats from restaurants and lobbied against excessive salt in foods, says the "initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment." Though 57 percent of the city's adults are overweight or obese, the plan has met with skepticism from critics who it see as a paternalistic gesture.

  • 'Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures' writes food policy blogger Tom Laskawy at Grist, who appears in favor of the ban. "The federal government remains unable and unwilling to staunch the unremitting flow of marketing dollars aimed at boosting consumers' purchases of "liquid candy." Meanwhile, state governments are at the mercy of overwhelming industry lobbying against attempts to levy taxes on sweetened beverages. In this hostile environment, appealing to the USDA to let it restrict food stamp use is one of the last arrows in cities' public health quiver."
  • No Food Stamps for Sodas In a New York Times op-ed contribution the city and state's health commissioners,Thomas Farley and Richard Daines, outline their reasoning for imposing the temporary ban: "Medical researchers have increasingly associated the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages with weight gain and the development of diabetes. 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." They remind their critics that they are not reducing funding for food stamps and these users still can purchase soda "just not with taxpayer dollars."
  • It's About Time, 'Thank Goodness' weighs in CBS news pundit Harry Smith. "America is eating itself to death," he contends. We are "Eating foods with grotesquely high calorie counts and sloshing it down with high sugar and high fructose drinks. It's a formula that's turned us into a people too fat to fight off diabetes. The price tag is practically incalculable. Living on food stamps isn't easy. And maybe it feels like a treat to buy soda for the kids, but eliminating those soft drinks will be better for everybody, and it's a way to stretch the buying power of those food stamps a little farther."
  • Could Have Further-Reaching Implications warns Jillian Melchior at Contentions. "This story could be seen as some microscopic foreshadowing of what’s to come for everybody, not just for the surprisingly high number of food-stamp recipients...Granted, in New York City, two-thirds of the population does not rely on government to fill the pantry. But once everyone’s health care is a public-spending issue, it is logical to assume that, at least to some extent, private behaviors will be up for public scrutiny; they have become a public cost issue."
  • The 'Paternalistic' Nature of It "makes me uncomfortable" but "I actually think it makes some sense," hedges Ira Stoll at the blog Future of Capitalism. "I don't object to the idea of a government food stamp safety net to make sure that people don't starve, though I think that without one private charity would rise to the challenge. But it's one thing to provide people with enough food to make sure they are healthy and not starving; it's another thing to feed them enough soda to make them obese, at taxpayer expense."
  • Is This Really the Best Way? Time's Meredith Melnick details the opposition to the ban: "Not everyone agrees that restriction is the best solution. Advocates for the urban poor suggest that such a move would patronize and alienate an already stigmatized population. In 2004, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) rejected a similar Minnesota proposal to bar people from buying candy and soda with food stamps, because it perpetuated the stereotype that food stamp-users make bad food choices."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.