Friday, October 15, 2010

Bar Food Stamps in Purchase of Sugary Drinks?

New York Will Ask Obama to Bar Food Stamps in Purchase of Sugary Drinks
Henry Goldman
Oct 7, 2010

New York City and state officials want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban the use of food stamps to buy sugary soft drinks for two years to curb obesity- related diseases among the city’s poor.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are “the largest single contributor to the obesity epidemic,” Governor David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a joint statement in advance of a City Hall news briefing today. Obesity is almost twice as prevalent among the city’s poorest households as in the wealthiest, they said.

The state’s office for disability assistance intends to ask the USDA to exclude the drinks from the list of items that can be purchased with food stamps, a welfare program that started in 1964, the statement said. The ban, requested by both the state and local governments, would affect only the city.

“The use of food stamp benefits to support the purchase of sugar sweetened drinks not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic,” Paterson said in the statement. “There is clear evidence that low-income individuals have higher rates of obesity and are more at risk of becoming obese than other groups.”

Fat Costs Big

Obesity-related illness costs New York state residents almost $8 billion annually, or $770 for each household, according to city and state health officials. Overweight or obese adults compose 57 percent of the city’s population, they said. Almost half, or 46 percent, of the 22,300 people hospitalized for obesity-related diabetes each year live in low- income neighborhoods, the statement said.

The proposal “will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it,” the American Beverage Association, an industry group in Washington, said in an e-mailed statement.

“There is nothing unique about the calories in sugar- sweetened beverages -- which include flavored waters, sports drinks, juice drinks and teas -- to justify singling them out for elimination from eligible purchases in the food stamps program in New York City,” the association said in its statement.

Heavy Kids

Almost 40 percent of New York City’s public-school students in kindergarten through eighth grade are overweight or obese, including 46 percent of Hispanic students and 40 percent of black students, according to the statement from Paterson and Bloomberg. A child who consumes one sugary drink a day has a 60 percent higher risk of becoming obese than those who don’t, the statement said.

In September 2010, 1.7 million New York City residents out of 2.9 million statewide received food stamp benefits. USDA surveys have estimated that 6 percent of nutrition-assistance benefits nationwide are used to buy sugared soft drinks, amounting to $75 million to $135 million a year in benefits spent in New York City, the officials said.

The proposal for a ban is a “sensible request,” Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in an e-mailed statement.

“The empty calories in soft drinks pose a major public health problem by promoting tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and other health problems,” he said. “It’s also the case that those diseases have a disproportionate impact on low-income Americans.”

Abandoned Effort

This year, Paterson proposed and Bloomberg supported a half-cent-per-ounce tax on sugared drinks as a health initiative that Paterson said would have raised $1 billion to help close the state budget deficit. The governor abandoned the effort after beverage-industry lobbyists persuaded legislative leaders to oppose it.

“This is one of the most heinous examples of lobbying and the way in which lobbying has affected and influenced the outcome of what would have been needed budget changes,” Paterson told reporters.

Richard Daines and Thomas Farley, the state and city health commissioners, described the effort in an article in today’s New York Times.

The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Goldman in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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