The USDA last week rejected New York’s proposal to ban the use of food stamps to buy soda within the state.
The state needed a special waiver from the USDA to implement such a change to the federal food stamps program. There’s been much debate over the morality, efficacy and wisdom of New York’s proposed ban, but the USDA didn’t get drawn into the debate in deciding to refuse New York’s requested waiver. Instead, it rejected the proposal on grounds of complexity. The USDA apparently feels it’s too hard to decide which beverages qualify for the ban and which ones don’t.
Too bad, because I’d have liked to have heard some broader debate on the proposal itself. Though some view the proposal as coming down unevenly on lower income New Yorkers, others believe it would accomplish little in the way of reducing obesity, and others feel the state should stay out of people’s business, I liked the plan.
What’s to like, if its effects may be minimal, its fairness is uncertain and it’s another extension of the so-called “nanny state?” I like that it sets a precedent in the law against soda. Maybe I’m predisposed to liking this precedent because I’m grateful for Mayor Bloomberg’s previous “nanny state” rules, banning cigarettes and trans fats from restaurants and bars. But I also like it because I believe soda is doing at least as much harm to our health as cigarettes and trans fats. And if we can slap bans on the latter, we should be able to slap bans on the former. Put this law on the books and it places soda in the public’s mind as a vice on that same level.
I recognize the risks of the proposed ban. I empathize with people who don’t want government telling them what they can’t eat; and it’s tough in many cases to tell what foods truly are good or bad for us. Government certainly has changed its stance on many foods, and we can’t just go banning whichever products seem dangerous at any given time. Also it seems unfair to place the prohibition only on the use of food stamps, which is limited to only certain individuals. (Though people who use food stamps could still buy soda with dollars and cents; they just couldn’t use the food stamps themselves.)
But in my gut I like the ban anyway, and mourn its rejection by the USDA. Nobody’s doing themselves or anyone else a favor by drinking these sodas, and it’s about time governments recognized that with their implications for diabetes, obesity and heart disease they may cause as great (or greater) a health risk to society as cigarettes ever did.