Paterson and Bloomberg

SodaAs the New York Times reported on Wednesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to bar residents who receive food stamps from using them to purchase soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages

His goal: to help combat the obesity epidemic—a move supported by the state and city health commissioners.

“In spite of the great gains we’ve made over the past 8 years in making our communities healthier, there are still two areas where we’re losing ground: obesity and diabetes,” Bloomberg says. “We know there is no quick fix to address these issues. That’s why New York City has already implemented a series of programs that bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the communities that need them and set nutrition standards for all meals and snacks the city provides.

“We have to continue developing new strategies and initiatives to complement what has already been done,” he continues. “And that’s why we are looking to eliminate sugary beverages from allowable food stamp purchases. This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment.”

Adds New York Gov. David Paterson: “The use of food-stamp benefits to support the purchase of sugar-sweetened drinks not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic. We are helping record numbers of low-income families put food on the table, and we are very proud of that accomplishment. But there is clear evidence that low-income individuals have higher rates of obesity and are more at risk of becoming obese than other groups. The serious chronic illnesses related to obesity—diabetes, cancer and heart disease—take a toll on our families, friends and neighbors, but also carry a cost that we all bear, as nearly half of the $147 billion spent nationally on treatment per year is paid by Medicaid and Medicare.”

But as the Times reported on Thursday, the proposal will likely face legal and political obstacles. Some argue it discriminates against the poor and suffers from faulty reasoning: Not all poor people are obese, and many wealthy people are overweight. 

One fact is certain: Once the beverage lobby pads congressional wallets with substantial contributions, our elected representatives are sure to balk at any ban, in spite of a recent National Cancer Institute study that proves sugar-sweetened beverages directly contribute to obesity in a country whose citizens can’t resist the urge to supersize their drinks.

Photo: Edward Reed