The High Cost of Soda

Posted Nov. 19, 2008, at 6:22 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:28 a.m.

Whenever government takes action that smacks of imposing values on a group of people, critics abound on both the left and right. The most recent case in point is a proposal to remove soda from the list of foods that may be purchased with food stamps. Liberals worry government is discriminating and stigmatizing the poor, while conservatives criticize the state’s perceived paternalism.

From both liberal and conservative perspectives, however, removing soda from a taxpayer-funded food maintenance program for the poor makes good sense.

Two questions should guide such decisions. Does government have the moral authority to impose such standards? Is there a demonstrable good achieved in doing so?

Assistance should come with no strings attached and no preaching, some argue. But government-funded assistance programs have always made distinctions relating to standards. The occupants of subsidized housing must comply with a series of rules that don’t apply to nonsubsidized renters. College students with drug convictions are ineligible for federal aid. And food stamps can’t be used to pay for beer or wine.

The second question, whether society as a whole gains, is easily answered. Soda has no nutritional value and is clearly linked to tooth decay, diabetes and obesity, which in turn contributes to a host of health problems.

Drinking soda instead of water or low-fat milk is one of a handful of key causes identified in the sharp rise in childhood obesity rates. Once a child — or adult — struggles with obesity, a decline in health snowballs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, already has models to address this. It bans the purchase of “foods of minimal nutritional value” in its school lunch program and the Women, Infants and Children program. WIC recipients are given vouchers for specific nutrient-rich foods. School subsidies require adherence to USDA nutrition standards. Soda, whether sweetened with sugar or artificially, as well as carbonated drinks enhanced with traces of vitamins or minerals, are excluded from both programs.

Further, the food stamp program recently was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “The new name reflects our focus on nutrition and putting healthy food within reach for low-income households,” its Web site states. “SNAP helps low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health.”

Not allowing soda purchases would fit perfectly with that mission.

If Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services does apply for a waiver from the federal rules for food stamps, as Jonathan Shenkin, president-elect of the Maine Dental Association advocates, material educating food stamp recipients about healthful beverage choices should be included with the vouchers.

Dr. Shenkin, a Bangor dentist, led the way in pushing the city of Bangor and then the state to ban smoking in vehicles when minor children are present. His soda initiative will be as controversial as the smoking ban was, but like tobacco, soda poses a health threat. Financing the purchase of soda is not a good bang for the taxpayer buck.

The cost of providing health care for the poor, which is borne by all taxpayers, has grown to unacceptable levels. Reasonable steps, like getting soda off the list of food stamp foods, should be taken as soon as possible.

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