Monday, an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post discussed the merits of a controversial proposal by New York state to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages to those using SNAP benefits. The article was first said to be authored by Marion Nestle who, while she does agree with Geoffrey Canada’s viewpoint, did not actually take part in writing the article. Nevertheless, it has re-sparked discussion among nutrition and food policy experts about this proposal, which was first introduced in October 2010 and is still under consideration by the USDA (it will hopefully be decided on soon). In an effort to combat rising obesity among disadvantaged populations, the proposal entails a pilot program lasting 2 years that would not allow SNAP (aka food stamps) participants to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages with their benefits. Of course, they can still purchase them without using benefits – obviously, this is not an outright ban on soda.

First, the basics on soda and its relation to obesity. Research consistently shows that sugar-sweetened beverages, especially soda, are significant contributors to obesity and related health outcomes, like diabetes. Nutritionists and health experts know that soda is devoid of any nutritional value – it’s liquid candy, sometimes with added caffeine. As the HuffPost article points out, a striking 6% of SNAP benefits were spent on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2009 (according to the USDA). Because of these facts, soda has been declared the enemy by the health community and many obesity prevention efforts center around the formidable task of eliminating soda from America’s diet. Mayor Bloomberg is well-known for his public health campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-salt, menu labeling in restaurants, etc.), and soda is his latest foe.

While I do agree that we need innovative approaches to tackling obesity, I’m a strong proponent of using carrots (rewards/incentives) versus sticks (penalties/disincentives) as a founding methodology. First, soda consumption is not the only thing causing obesity – it is one of many factors, most of them dietary but many intertwined with social and genetic causes. Many people, particularly those who are less educated, don’t understand that the components of their diet are unhealthy – as such, preventing people from buying soda with food stamps doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re teaching them soda is unhealthy. And, if they really want soda, they will find a way to buy it. I think it would be more effective to offer incentives for using food stamps to purchase healthier foods, like pilots that have proposed giving double value for SNAP benefits used to buy fruits and vegetables. Either way, I believe there needs to be an educational component to this type of pilot program or the message won’t sink in.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

For more takes on the issue:

Marion Nestle in the San Fransisco Chronicle
Center for Science in the Public Interest
New York Times – April 2011
New York Times – October 2011
City Journal
*photo from Wikipedia