Friday, 8 October 2010

Will NYC Sugary Drinks Restriction Succeed?

I came across this interesting article today: New York will ask Obama to bar food stamps in purchase of sugary drinks.

 See also, New York asks to bar use of Food Stamps to buy sodas.

The bar of restricting the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps is to apply to those receiving this type of social security benefit/welfare assistance in New York City, around 1.7 million recipients.  It would be an experiment, as such, in that it would last for two years only.

The justification for this move is twofold. Firstly, the obesity rate among the lower earnings group is higher than that of the more affluent. Secondly, there are correlations between the increase in sales of sugary drinks and the increase of obesity.

The United States Department of Agricultural already restricts the use of food stamps for the purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, and prepared foods. It is easy to argue that the first two categories are unrelated to food really, but the limit on the category of prepared foods seems similar to sugary drinks. It’s hard to tell what is considered food nowadays. For instance, is bottled water food? And is a drink that contains little to no nutritional value except sugar food? It seems logical that food stamps should be used solely for the purchase of food, and I would argue, food from a limited list excluding highly refined and sugary products across the board.  After all, the purpose of food stamps is to enable people to sustain themselves, not assist them in becoming obese at the taxpayers' expense.

Statistics and facts show that obesity is an expensive and prevalent problem in New York State. One flaw I see in this move is not only that it may stigmatise people on food stamps, but it will not make that much of a dent in the problem. With a population in New York City as of 2009 of up to 8.4 billion, there are a lot of people who are not included in this action. Add to that the fact that food stamp recipients will still be able to buy sugary drinks with cash and it seems like little, if anything, will be accomplished by this move.  But, a small dent is better than none.

The American Beverage Association claims that this “will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it,” and “[it] is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink.” Of course, the government is not telling New Yorkers what to eat and drink, but what not to eat and drink. But, I agree, it is a restrictive measure nonetheless and being taken against people with the least buying power and no say in the matter.  However, I would again say that we have to revert to the purpose of the program, against which these arguments are weak.

Is this the first step towards a more robust restriction? Will it follow the example of the restrictions that have been placed on cigarettes? The figures add up (and not just the figures of those buying sugary drinks with food stamps!) to support such a move. How bad does the obesity problem need to get before our governments are entitled to take such measures?  And how is it that the people with the least amount of money to buy food in America are the most likely to be obese?  I, for one, hope this effort is successful.

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