Last summer, a study out of Stanford University and UC San Francisco found that nearly 700,000 Americans would be saved from obesity or Type 2 diabetes during the next decade if the federal government made just one tiny change:
Stop letting people buy sugary soft drinks with food stamps.
That’s it. Nothing complicated. Nothing fancy. Just acknowledge, as we have with tobacco, that sugary soda encourages wildly expensive public health problems, so, no, we’re not going to use tax dollars to encourage its consumption.
The suggestion went nowhere.
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The reason for that is political influence. Beverage manufacturers and corn growers profit from the sale of sugary sodas and the high-fructose corn syrup that makes them fattening, and they have powerful lobbies to make sure Americans, rich and poor, continue to drink up.
Never mind that chugging a typical 12-ounce can of cola is like gagging down 10 heaping teaspoons of sugar. And never mind that low-income people suffer from obesity and Type 2 diabetes at far higher rates than the rest of the population.
Soda manufacturers and their allies have argued, among other things, that if sugary soft drinks can’t be bought with food stamps — formally known as CalFresh here and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) in the rest of the country — then the government is somehow discriminating against the poor.
That’s nonsense. Yet year after year, heroic efforts to stem the tide of junk drinks to the poor have gone down to defeat, partly because of this bogus argument.
Now a statewide poll of people on or eligible for CalFresh offers evidence that food-stamp recipients don’t think junk drinks should be subsidized. As California Endowment Senior Vice President Daniel Zingale wrote in a Sacramento Bee commentary last week, 60% of the people surveyed said that CalFresh cards should only be good for the purchase of beverages like juice, water and milk.
Which shouldn't be surprising. The income bracket that qualifies people for food stamps has, not incidentally, a rate of Type 2 diabetes that is nearly twice that of wealthier income brackets. More than most Californians, CalFresh recipients know the toll that sugary drinks have taken on public health.
In all likelihood, the survey, by Oakland-based California Food Policy Advocates, will come to rest in the same circular file as last summer’s study. At some point, though, there will be no escaping the mounting evidence.
Sugary soft drinks, like cigarettes, are harmful to our health in costly ways. And most of us, rich or poor, are fine with doing something about that.
It’s not complicated. It’s just a fact. And it’s not discrimination.