Friday, October 8, 2010

No Soda for You

Alright, I know that soda is quite evil. As a student of public health, nutrition, and exercise, I know that consuming liquid calories has effects on satiety that may lead to weight gain. I was even part of the generation that, in elementary school, put teeth in glasses of soda and chronicled how quickly they dissolved for our science fair projects.

And, in general, I think New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's public health initiatives to ban trans fats in restaurants and require calorie counts on menus have been intelligent ways to grapple with the problem of overweight.

But I believe his latest salvo in the war on fatness is somewhat misguided. He's asked the US Department of Agriculture to stop New York City residents who receive food stamps from using them to buy soda or other sugared beverages.

Yes, it's true that there are other things that aren't eligible to be bought with food stamps, like alcohol and hot, prepared foods. But it seems pretty paternalistic to give money to people to help them buy groceries, then turn around and tell them, "Oh, that's not healthy. You can't use the government's money to buy that." It seems like just another way to cause shame to those who don't quite have the means these days to put food on the table.

And it sets sort of a precedent. If we can make low-income people ineligible to buy soda with food stamps, let's also stop them from buying high-fat meats like hamburger or maybe they can only use food stamps for skim milk, not whole milk.

Look, if Bloomberg wants to ban sodas from New York City, I'm all for it. But to put a public health measure into place that is punitive to only one socioeconomic strata of people, well, not even my Center-for-Science-in-the-Public-Interest-lovin' heart can go along with that. But I'd love to hear what you think. Agree? Disagree?


Eric said...

Well, when I hear the grand complaints against soda, I think it is pretty sloppy that often no distinction is made between sugar-free and sugared sodas. If the complaint is about diabetes, weight gain, and other problems with sugar, then sugar-free soda is totally innocent of those charges, right? (Because I am assuming that this is not an unfocused general attack on a percieved 'junk-food culture' but rather based on concrete goals.) Can you tell me if sugar-free is exempt from his plan?

If it was, then I personally fall on the side of "As long as public health problems bear heavily on the economy and on public hospital expenditures, then the state has a right to paternalistically meddle in consumption." If we lived in a perfect world where everyone paid for their own health, they would have a right to guzzle coke and die. But very often the tab is picked up by the public.

Miriam said...

Should have been more specific, Eric. The ban would affect only sugared beverages. Here's the quote from the New York Times: "The ban would affect beverages with more than 10 calories per 8 ounces, and would exclude fruit juices without added sugar, milk products and milk substitutes. A 12-ounce soda has 150 calories and the equivalent of 10 packets of sugar, according to the health department."

Mary said...

I agree with your points, Miriam. Maybe it's more about teaching how to fish rather than denying fatty fish??

In other words, how's about allocating the money that would be spent ensuring people don't suck down the soda be poured into health education and fitness programs? Just a thought...

Mary said...

Perhaps the money that would be spent monitoring what people buy with food stamps could be spent educating those folks about good nutritional choices.

In fact, perhaps assistance could be contingent on taking intermittent nutrition classes.

In an era when we as a culture feel increasingly comfortable mandating behaviors, it would be refreshing to see action in improving cultural deficits rather than spending time and money identifying unsavory behaviors followed by mandating judgments.

Eric said...

however, trying to encourage and educate people is a tiny-percentage game... do you think that government-funded education campaigns would likely result in more than 5% of the people changing their behavior? Comparatively, what is the effective change if the government just says "look, this food stamp we're providing can not be used to buy Megafat BBQ choco-Clusters-- sorry, that's just not why we made this program."