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Cola Conservatives

The health police attack food stamps for soft drinks.

The war on soda has taken a new turn. Health crusaders are shifting their target from taxes to food stamps. By seizing the libertarian high ground, they’re securing a short-term advantage over the soda industry. And they’re gaining another foothold in the long-term struggle to expel soft drinks from the definition of food.

The man at the center of this maneuver is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the nation’s leading food nanny. In recent years, he has banned trans fats from the city’s restaurants, made them post calorie counts for menu items, and pressured food companies, under the threat of legislation, to reduce their salt use.

This year, Bloomberg backed a proposal by New York Gov. David Paterson to tax soft drinks. The proposal went down in flames under fire from the American Beverage Association. As in other states, an industry-funded front group, New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, pummeled the plan with an anti-tax message.

Bloomberg and Paterson have learned their lesson. They’ve found a better way to get at soda: food stamps. They’ve asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to let them bar the use of food stamps for the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages. Minnesota floated this idea six years ago without success. But that was before the recession and the worsening of the obesity crisis.

To fend off this proposal, the ABA is trotting out its usual message: “This is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink.” But that line of attack may not work this time around. Food-stamp restrictions are different from taxes. In some ways, they’re the opposite. They don’t tell you what to buy with your money. They limit what you can buy with other people’s money. And they draw that limit based on a definition of what’s necessary.

Bloomberg and his allies understand this difference and are exploiting it. Laying out their plan in a New York Times op-ed, the city and state health commissioners, Thomas Farley and Richard Daines, called the use of food stamps for soda “an enormous subsidy to the sweetened beverage industry.” Paterson warned that obesity imposes “a cost that we all bear,” estimated at $770 per household in medical expenses every year. The city’s human resources commissioner, Robert Doar, asserted, “Government should not be in the business of subsidizing poor health habits that end up costing taxpayers through higher Medicaid and Medicare costs.” And Farley and Daines pointed out that food-stamp users “could still purchase soda if they chose—just not with taxpayer dollars.”

These arguments against subsidies and in defense of taxpayers’ rights are politically potent. But they’re even more potent when combined with the depiction of soda as a nutritionally empty indulgence. At a joint press conference, Daines explained that contrary to the ABA’s libertarian objections,

Prohibiting the purchase of sugary beverages with food stamps is a step towards reducing government intervention and towards restoring respect for the generosity and honesty of taxpayers. … It shows disrespect for taxpayers to say we should tax some people to take their money to … pay for the purchase of unnecessary, un-nutritive snacks by others.

Unnecessary. Un-nutritive. This is the underlying theme of the Bloomberg-Paterson initiative. Their joint press release dismissed soda as “empty calories.” Farley and Daines said the plan affected only “beverages that contain more sugar than substance.” Daines said it targeted fluids with “little to no nutritional value.” Farley called these drinks “nothing more than sugar water.” Bloomberg said the plan would shift food-stamp use to “real nourishment.”

Bloomberg and Paterson even compared soda to alcohol and tobacco. The mayor observed that the food-stamp program has “always excluded certain categories of products without nutritional value like cigarettes and alcohol. And we believe that a strong case can be made for adding sugary drinks to that list.” The governor, citing the public health costs of “sugar-related products,” said that “we reached this conclusion about smoking about 40 years ago. Now we have to do it for sugar. … You can’t use food stamps to buy alcohol. You can’t use them to buy cigarettes. And these types of items are causing just as much damage.”

Note the nouns. Soft drinks are “products” and “items.” Not food.

Is Bloomberg turning libertarian? Not a bit. At the press conference, he argued that in addition to educating people about sugary drinks, the government has

a responsibility to use other tools to reduce excess consumption of these beverages, like targeted taxes and elimination of subsidies to industries that contribute to serious health problems, such as obesity-related illnesses that cost New York State residents nearly $8 million [sic] in medical costs each year. *

That’s how Bloomberg really sees the food-stamp initiative: It’s a tool to reduce consumption, just like the failed tax proposal. But it stands a better chance politically. And if it becomes law, it will join the Women, Infants, and Children program and the National School Lunch/School Breakfast Program in distinguishing soft drinks from sustenance. It will reinforce those precedents, helping to push soda out of the food category and into a category with alcohol and tobacco, where it can be taxed and restricted more easily. Chew on that.

Video: Iliza Vie Calls Out Bloomberg on His Soda Tax

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Clarification, Oct. 19, 2010: At his news conference, Bloomberg said obesity-related illnesses cost New Yorkers nearly $8 million per year. However, according to his press release, the correct estimate is “nearly $8 billion.” (Return to the sentence.)