Food Stamps and Soft Drinks

If you're looking for a way to turn poor people away from the fight against obesity, I think New York City, which wants to bar the use of food stamps for soft drinks, has found it:

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. 

Some 57 percent of adults in New York City and 40 percent of children in New York City public schools are overweight or obese. The numbers are especially high in low-income neighborhoods, where people are most likely to suffer the devastating health consequences. One in eight adult city residents now has diabetes, and the disease is nearly twice as common among poorer New Yorkers as it is among wealthier ones. Diabetes rates in the low-income neighborhood of East New York, for instance, are four times those in affluent Gramercy Park. 

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. 

Every year, tens of millions of federal dollars are spent on sweetened beverages in New York City through the food stamp program -- far more than is spent on obesity prevention. This amounts to an enormous subsidy to the sweetened beverage industry. To correct this, New York City and State are asking the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, to authorize a demonstration project in New York City. 

The city would bar the use of food stamps to buy beverages that contain more sugar than substance -- that is, beverages with low nutritional value that contain more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving. The policy would not apply to milk, milk substitutes (like soy milk, rice milk or powdered milk) or fruit juices without added sugar -- and its effects would be rigorously evaluated.

There are many problems here. Without any context, I don't really know what the "one-sixth of an average teenager's calories" figure means. But it's beside the point. What you'd want to know is how much--precisely--is spent on sweetened beverages, relative to everything else, and how that fits into overall caloric consumption among people on food-stamps. Without that context, the subsidy point is meaningless. Food stamps also amount to a subsidy on Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, Chips Ahoy, Ore Ida French fries, and Kool-Aid. Shall we ban those too?

More disturbingly, for me, is the fact that none of this does a thing to equip individuals with tools to be healthier. It doesn't educate anyone about precisely what they're doing when they consume a liter of Sprite. In that sense, it greatly underestimates the many cheap sources of pleasurable calories. Perhaps this is my bias, but given the social issues around obesity, I think it will be really hard to mandate smaller waist-lines. My sense is that this is a war of information and persuasion, and that this mandate avoids that difficult work for the much easier option of sanction.

Poor or otherwise, nothing will make people turn against the obesity fight (or likely any public health fight) quicker than mindless penalties. There will always be some kind of paternalism at work in the social safety net. I'm fine with that. But that paternalism needs to be effective. I'm willing to be swayed, but this feels like something that was cooked up in a lab without any consideration for ordinary human nature. This is not a math formula. You need to convince actual, living, breathing people.

As an aside, please keep in mind our convo from a few days ago. This is always a contentious topic. Let's keep it civil.

UPDATE: A lot of commenters are referring to this as a "soda ban." It needs to me made clear that this a ban on sweetened beverages, including fruit juices. So a lot of folks have noted that , say, Frosted Flakes has more nutritional value than Sprite. That's fine. But again, I'm not convinced that Chips Ahoy have more nutritional value than Capri Sun.