The New York State health commissioner, Richard Daines, having seen his proposal for a tax on sugary beverages run aground in Albany, has a new front in his battle against obesity. From an op-ed co-authored by Dr. Daines in today's New York Times:
New York City and State are asking the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, to authorize a demonstration project in New York City. The city would bar the use of food stamps to buy beverages that contain more sugar than substance — that is, beverages with low nutritional value that contain more than 10 calories per eight-ounce serving. The policy would not apply to milk, milk substitutes (like soy milk, rice milk or powdered milk) or fruit juices without added sugar — and its effects would be rigorously evaluated.
I've been critical of the paternalistic nature of Dr. Daines's war on soda, and I've also been critical of him for singling out Coke and Pepsi as opposed to, say, an ice cream sundae or a milk shake from McDonald's or from the Shake Shack. His response tends to be that there's a unique property of soda that makes it less filling than a milkshake, which means you can drink more of it, and get more fat.
There are plenty of ways around the proposed food stamp solution. A person could still use food stamps to buy sugar and lemons and make sugary lemonade, or to buy the ingredients for an ice cream sundae with five times as much calories as a soda. A person could use food stamps to buy Diet Coke. Soda purchases by New Yorkers who are not on food stamps wouldn't be affected by the program, nor would most purchases made at fast food franchises or 7-11 outlet fountains ("The Big Gulp"). Still, to the extent that the argument that obesity is a public policy issue in the first place relates in part to the Medicaid costs of caring for obesity (though not the savings to Social Security or state and local pension funds from premature death), focusing the response to the issue on those poor enough to qualify for food stamps (and therefore, potentially, also for Medicaid) may make some sense.
All of which is a long way of saying that cutting out the subsidy for soda may be a better approach than a tax, and that while the paternalistic nature of it still makes me somewhat uncomfortable, I actually think it makes some sense. If I'm sitting around drinking tap water, why should I be subsidizing via taxes and food stamps some poorer person's decision to buy Coke or Pepsi? I don't object to the idea of a government food stamp safety net to make sure that people don't starve, though I think that without one private charity would rise to the challenge. But it's one thing to provide people with enough food to make sure they are healthy and not starving; it's another thing to feed them enough soda to make them obese, at taxpayer expense. Am I missing something?