Should the government dictate what the poor can drink?
New York Times columnist Mark Bittman argues that the almost 50 million people who receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) should not be allowed to spend the funds on soda and other junk food. The idea has “been gaining momentum in the last few years” Bittman writes, since “no one without a share in the profits can argue that [a sugary drink] plays a constructive role in any diet.”
Bittman’s column highlights a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
“It’s shocking,” says [Dr. David] Ludwig, [director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center and one of the article’s authors] “how little we consider food quality in the management of chronic diseases. And in the case of SNAP that failure costs taxpayers twice: We pay once when low-income families buy junk foods and sugary beverages with SNAP benefits, and we pay a second time when poor diet quality inevitably increases the costs of health care in general, and Medicaid and Medicare in particular.”
The economic argument tightens further since the estimated $4 billion in SNAP money that goes to soda companies essentially functions as a government subsidy of the beverage industry. Obesity, Bittman says, is “a bigger problem than hunger” and the government program needs to be adjusted accordingly, even though modifying it makes it more vulnerable to potential cuts.
Bittman doesn’t discuss the paternalism inherent in telling people what they can consume. That may be because SNAP benefits are already restricted: Recipients can’t use the money to buy tobacco, alcohol or even “hot foods” or “food that will be eaten in the store.”
That said, the obesity epidemic isn’t limited to the poor. Seven percent of our total calories come in the form of sweetened drinks, according to Bittman. Would public health be better served by less onerous, equal opportunity restrictions like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban of sodas larger than 16 ounces? Leave your ideas in the comments below.