BANGOR, Maine — Soda pop, the beverage of choice for hundreds of thousands of Mainers, is well established as a major contributor to dental decay, obesity and other health disorders.
Now Bangor pediatric dentist and public health advocate Jonathan Shenkin, president-elect of the Maine Dental Association, says Maine should add soda to the short list of items that cannot be purchased with the taxpayer-funded food stamp benefit.
If a federal waiver is granted, Maine would be the first state in the nation to prohibit soda purchases with food stamp dollars.
Shenkin was the driving force last year behind a city ordinance that banned smoking in vehicles when children are present. The measure since has been expanded into a state law.
The American Dental Association at its annual meeting in San Antonio last month endorsed a resolution in support of banning the use of food stamps to purchase soda and other sugary drinks.
On Wednesday, an advocate for low-income families and individuals warned against assuming that poor people consume more soda than the general population, and a spokesman for the beverage industry said the waiver proposal is suspiciously timed, considering Maine voters’ recent defeat of a new tax on soft drinks, wine and beer. But Shenkin said the public health issue transcends both concerns.
“People have the choice of buying soda with their own money, but taxpayer dollars should only be used to buy nutritional foods,” Shenkin said. While he would like to see the day when all low nutritional value foods are excluded from the food stamp program, Shenkin is focusing on soda now because it is simpler to define as non-nutritive. His proposal also includes diet soda, which is acidic and low in nutritional value.
Shenkin, who treats many low-income youngsters in his Bangor dental practice, said it’s not uncommon for him to see children as young as 3 or 4 years old who need to have all their deciduous teeth extracted due to advanced dental decay.
“It is absolutely the worst-case scenario of oral health,” he said. Shenkin said many of these children, as well as their parents, consume several cans of soda every day, exposing their teeth to a steady bath of sugar and acid that promotes tooth decay. He said the state has a financial interest in the issue since MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, pays for treating dental disease, obesity and related health problems in low-income children and adults.
Shenkin’s concerns are shared by Dr. Jonathan Fanburg, president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“This should be a no-brainer,” Fanburg said Wednesday. “I’m not sure how this issue has been overlooked ’til now.”
Close to 178,000 Maine households participated in the food stamp program in March of this year, drawing almost $17 million in food purchasing power for that month alone. The numbers are on the rise and expected to continue rising as the economy worsens.
Current regulations prohibit the use of food stamps for cleaning supplies, paper products, alcohol or tobacco, but allow the purchase of virtually any foods, including soda, candy, chips and other items that many consider junk food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, already 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.
Shenkin thinks the USDA should be consistent in its guidelines and in the message sent to program participants. But until the federal agency revisits its policies, he said, Maine should seek permission to eliminate soda from its food stamp program.
Chris Hastedt, policy director for the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice Partners, said Wednesday that low-income families should not be singled out for their consumption of soda. Referring to a 2004 USDA purchasing survey, she said it is a “myth” that the poor buy more soda and junk food than the general population.
“Poor kids are already so disadvantaged,” she said, “and now we’re going to tell them they can’t serve soda at a party?”
Newell Augur, director of the Maine Beverage Association and chair of the coalition that led the successful “Yes On One” Campaign that recently overturned a state tax that would have funded Maine’s controversial DirigoChoice health insurance plan, called the timing of Shenkin’s proposal “suspicious.”
“It seems more like payback for the referendum than sound public policy,” he said. Augur said he looked forward to learning more about the proposal.
“We want to be part of any discussion that addresses the health of Maine people,” he said. “We hope that discussion will be broad, open and fair.”
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said she would look into the logistics of applying for the waiver.
“This is something [the state] can agree on in principle,” she said. “Soda has virtually no nutritional value and should not be a regular part of anyone’s diet.” Mills said public nutrition education for all Mainers remains an essential component of the state’s efforts to foster good health.
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,” the Web site states. “SNAP helps low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health.”
Shenkin said the time is right for the program to get its priorities straight. Last year, he said, the state of Minnesota was denied USDA permission to disallow a broad category of “junk foods” from the food stamp program.
“That was a business decision and not a public health decision,” he said. The administration of incoming president Barack Obama and the new Congress, he said, are likely to take a more enlightened view of the matter.