A "Shaggy" Argument for the Soda Tax

By Gillian Grissom, staff editor A recent New York Times article observes the blossoming friendship between Big Beverage and interest groups opposed to New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed plan to redefine eligible items for purchase under SNAP. While the beverage lobbies initially seem unlikely partners for what the author calls the “[t]raditional, old-line liberals in the shaggy, idealistic, antihunger, antipoverty sector,” the groups have plenty on which to agree regarding this proposed policy modification.

Bloomberg’s plan would disallow the city’s 1.7 million SNAP participants from using food stamps to purchase sugary beverages. It comes as no surprise that the proposal stirred up hostility among antihunger / antipoverty advocates, who maintain that individuals have the right to make their own nutritional decisions. It is even less surprising that Big Beverage entered the fray under the guise of concern for consumer choice: the American Beverage Association called the proposal “just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink” in a statement issued earlier this month.

While I typically cast myself in the “shaggier” camp, I do think Bloomberg might be on to something here. The opposition to his plan certainly raises valid questions about paternalism and the threat it poses to the autonomy of our nation’s poor. However, the same taxpayers who fund SNAP also fund Medicaid and other federal health services. SNAP participants’ ability to use federally-funded benefits to purchase beverages so closely related to rises in obesity and diabetes undermines the expenditures required to offer health care to the same participants suffering from these diseases.

As the debate continues, we must keep in mind that it is not simply one about government control over consumer behavior. Obesity and related diseases are public health issues, and their prevention constitutes an important component of the current move toward preventive health care.

The public health dynamics currently at play, which include an adult obesity rate of about 1/3, differ greatly from those surrounding the farm bill’s creation in the 1960s, which first initiated the food stamp program in conjunction with farm subsidies. Thus, this unique conversation must reach beyond consumer and producer rights - although in nearly all other policy debates I would assign such rights utmost importance - to include the serious public health implications of sweetened beverage subsidization.

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