NEW YORK’S MAYOR BLOOMBERG is asking the federal government for permission to keep sugar-based sodas from being bought with food stamps. The reason is frightening rates of obesity and diabetes, especially in poorer neighborhoods, and he’s requesting a two-year experiment to see if less soda means better health.
Unless you are a PR person for Coke or Pepsi, you aren’t going to disagree that we should, ideally, drink water or other pure liquids; sweetened, carbonated beverages are no good for us. And obesity and diabetes mean higher health costs, which are often borne by taxpayers. How are earnest public-education efforts going to compete with sexy and expensive ad campaigns? Drinking soda has been glamorized to the point that it’s practically a patriotic duty (I myself love Diet Coke). It is a national habit.
That said, it is, I think, outrageous to take advantage of the disadvantaged by telling them what they can and can’t eat or drink. It’s like saying, Since you are unlucky enough to be indigent and powerless, we’re going to control your diet. Plus, can you really legislate healthful eating? Food habits are notoriously hard to break. And since other sugary treats—everything from ice cream to grape jelly, Snickers to Frosted Flakes—would still be available in exchange for food stamps, how can banning soda pop alone cause a revolution in the weight and health of any given population?
I like that Mayor Bloomberg is campaigning vigorously to change the public’s health attitudes, from smoking bans to obligatory calorie counts on the menus of certain restaurants. I know he’s right that soda is often drunk unconsciously, adding several hundred calories to our daily total. But he’s wrong to use this tactic to stigmatize an already stigmatized sector of New York’s citizenry.