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Drinking Sugar

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The proposal by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson that people receiving food stamps should no longer be able to use them to purchase sugared soft drinks, particularly soda, has drawn the inevitable controversy that accompanies public health innovations that are intended to change eating or drinking habits.

The attack from the libertarians is predictable: the government should not tell people what to eat. Nobody is telling anyone what to eat. Alcohol and tobacco cannot now be purchased with food stamps, although millions of people find those products extremely comfortable, enabling them to endure the vicissitudes of life.

No one would be barred from buying or drinking syrupy soda, although it has been shown to lead to obesity and diabetes. You just would not be able to spend taxpayer dollars to damage your health as well as pay for your treatment.

As one might expect, the American Beverage Association, a lobby of soft drink producers, is leading the charge against the proposal. The person who will decide the issue is nominally Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, previously best known for firing a subordinate based on a misleading fragment of a speech she made. 

We do not know whether it was the Secretary's decision to fire Shirley Sherrod as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in July, or whether her public dismissal came on orders from the White House. In either case, it is Vilsack's task to assume the position of responsibility (Rule 20: That's why God made staff) for what turned out to be a blunder after officials viewed a tape of Sherrod's complete remarks.

To get an idea of Mr. Vilsack's attitude, Edward-Isaac Dovere in City Hall, the newspaper, has quoted from a speech he made to the National Press Club:

"I think it is important for us to recognize that there is a difference between a sometimes food and everyday foods," Vilsack said then, emphasizing better teaching, but steering clear of endorsing changes to the tax code. "There are occasions when those sometimes foods are appropriate and okay. And we think the approach ought to be an educational approach and an incentive driven approach.

As a youngster might say in response to this official timidity, "Cluck. Cluck."

Of course, children are substantial consumers of soda drinks. They will face the health consequences later. The popular blog, Gothamist, has its own take on the subject: BLOOMBERG'S FOOD STAMP SODA BAN SEEMS DOA is the headline. 

"The raging debate about whether Mayor Bloomberg should or shouldn't try to stop poor people from using food stamps on soda seems to be missing an important point: It's quite likely this is never going to happen, because it seems the United States Department of Agriculture lacks the authority to approve such a change. Federal law is very specific about what can and cannot be bought with food stamps, and any exemption from these guidelines would require Congressional approval. And since most politicians are in the pocket of the beverage industry, it looks like poor Joe Sixpack (of Jolt) will be buying soda with food stamps for the foreseeable future." You can click here to read the rest of the Gothamist article, which appears to be highly credible and well written.

Whether or not the exemption of sweetened soda from the list of eligible reimbursable foods has a chance of adoption -- and the odds are against it in today's anti-government climate -- we kind of like it for its health benefits. Why should we taxpayers subsidize obesity and the medical costs that caring for diabetes would require? Why should kids be brought up on sugar water? At summer camp, we used to call it 'bug juice,' because once a bug landed on it, the creature was either trapped or drowned, and simply lay on the surface of the Kool-Aid, or the cheaper substitute that was being ladled out.

Some will call this the nanny state, an example of overweening government interference in people's private lives. The soft drink industry is said to be framing the debate as an attack on the poor, since they consume the most soda. It is recruiting minority politicians to oppose the ban, thus giving the old race card a new twist. Darren Dopp, whose former employer, Eliot Spitzer, was said to have lured the lad into errors, now says: "This has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with a government that wants to tell poor people what they can eat and drink."

The line, "This has nothing to do with race," reminds us of "This has nothing to do with money," which generally means that the dispute has everything to do with money, rather than the tinsel with which that reality is being shrouded.

It is amusing to see the American Beverage Association beating the drum on behalf of the alleged interest of poor people, when their primary interest is in getting poor people to drink as much soda as their mothers can afford to buy. This proposal would make the mothers, not the taxpayers, the actual buyers.

There are cross currents on this issue, but the likelihood is that the lobbyists who dominate the Senate and House will prevail. After all, aren't they entitled to get what they pay for, as they did when Congress deregulated Wall Street over the years before the crash?

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