New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with the encouragement of both city and state health commissioners, is seeking to bar the use of food stamps for buying soda and other sweetened drinks.
Bloomberg is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the food stamp program, for permission to institute a two-year ban that would affect the estimated 1.7 million city residents who receive food stamps. That time frame, he said, would permit health officials to study the health impact of such a ban.
The request, according to the mayor's office, would not in any way reduce food stamp eligibility or size of the food stamp benefit received by recipients.
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"Bravo to Mayor Bloomberg for his efforts," said Ari Brown, MD, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas. "When food options are limited to healthy choices, it can only help in the fight against the obesity problem in our country."
City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and Dr. Richard F. Daines, the state health commissioner, explained the reasoning behind the proposed ban in an op-ed article published in today's New York Times.
"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," they wrote, adding that the ban 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."
Farley and Daines noted that the proposed ban was "entirely in keeping with existing standards for defining what is and isn't nutritious. The Agriculture Department itself has declared sugar-sweetened beverages to be "foods of minimal nutritional value."
There are already a number of limitations on the use of food stamps — they cannot be used to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, imported foods, soap, toothpaste, paper products, cleaning supplies, or disposable diapers. Nor can they be used to purchase meals in restaurants.
More than half of New York City residents are overweight or obese, as are about 40% of the city's school children, according to Farley and Daines.
"One in eight adult city residents now has diabetes, and the disease is nearly twice as common among poorer New Yorkers," they wrote, adding that the diabetes rate in a poor neighborhood like East New York is about four times higher than the rate in "affluent Gramercy Park."
The request to restrict food stamps is the latest of a series of healthy living initiatives by the Bloomberg administration, which has already overhauled the cafeteria offerings in the city's public schools. The mayor also tried and failed to get the state to impose a special sales tax on soda.
Dr. Lee Green of the University of Michigan said that the medical literature shows that sodas contribute to obesity and disease. Thus, some could argue that public funding should be reserved for more nutritious foods.
On the other hand, Green said, "I suppose one might say that the poor should have the same right to make unhealthy food choices as everyone else."
Dr. John Abramson, a family practice physician in Hamilton, Mass., and author of Overdosed America, said the argument that restrictions on soda are an infringement of government into private lives is spurious.
"A major contributor to the increase in corn sweeteners in the American diet has been government subsidies of corn farming," he wrote in an e-mail. "The infringement into our private lives has been the obesity-causing government subsidized caloric inflation of our diets."