As sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor towards America’s obesity epidemic, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson have proposed to the Department of Agriculture that they be excluded from the list of products that can be purchased with food stamps, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They propose that for a period of two years, those who receive food stamps would continue with the same benefits, but sugar-sweetened drinks would be excluded from their list of eligible purchases.

Bloomberg says this proposal forms part of a wider NY City drive towards improved nutrition and better body weight control.

Mayor Bloomberg said:

In spite of the great gains we’ve made over the past eight years in making our communities healthier, there are still two areas where we’re losing ground – obesity and diabetes. We know there is no quick fix to address these issues. That’s why New York City has already implemented a series of programs that bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the communities that need them and set nutrition standards for all meals and snacks the City provides. We have to continue developing new strategies and initiatives to complement what has already been done. And that’s why we are looking to eliminate sugary beverages from allowable food stamp purchases. This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment.

Governor Paterson, said:

The use of Food Stamp benefits to support the purchase of sugar sweetened drinks not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic. We are helping record numbers of low-income families put food on the table, and we are very proud of that accomplishment. But there is clear evidence that low-income individuals have higher rates of obesity and are more at risk of becoming obese than other groups. The serious chronic illnesses related to obesity – diabetes, cancer and heart disease – take a toll on our family, friends and neighbors, but also carry a cost that we all bear, as nearly half of the $147 billion spent nationally on treatment per year is paid by Medicaid and Medicare.

According to the Office of the Mayor, Americans eat and drink two- to three-hundred more calories per day than they used to three decades ago. Half of this increase comes from drinks sweetened with sugar. Some 20-ounce bottles have the equivalent of 16 packets of sugar in them – 26 packets can be found in a number of 32-ounce bottles. These drinks are full of calories – empty calories. Empty calories carry the same amount of energy as other calories, but they are devoid of any significant amounts of nutrients, such as minerals or vitamins.

The calories in these drinks contribute to the nation’s obesity epidemic. Obese people have a considerably higher risk of developing diabetes Type 2. 14% of New York City’s poorest residents have been diagnosed with diabetes Type 2, compared to 7% of those who are better off.

Illnesses linked to obesity cost NY State residents $770 per household, a total of $8 billion in medical bills annually. 57% of all NY City adults are obese/overweight.

22,300 people are admitted to hospital due to diabetes-related illnesses in NY City. 46% of these hospitalizations consisted of low-income residents.

In NY City, 46% of Hispanic children, 40% of African-American children and 40% of all children in public schools are overweight/obese. Overweight/obesity rates are not falling; if this trend persists the city will soon face significantly higher rates of heart disease and other chronic (long-term) illnesses, the Mayor’s office informs.

The aim of the Federal Food Stamp Act, 1964, was to help low-income households reach better levels of nutrition. Sugary drinks do not improve levels of nutrition.

Unhealthy products, such as alcohol and tobacco are already excluded from the food stamps list. In a communiqué, the Mayor’s office writes:

This new proposal seeks permission from the USDA to assess the effect of a temporary modification to the list of allowable food items to be purchased with food stamps in New York City. The proposal for this initiative will not affect the total benefits received, but by cutting out sugary drinks it would increase the amount of money available for more nutritious foods and beverages.

Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs said:

Sugary drinks are the single largest contributor to the obesity epidemic, and these beverages are affecting our children and families now more than ever. This initiative will expand our efforts to make healthy food the default option in our City and help reduce the burden of diabetes in our poorest communities.

Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said:

The twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes are taking a toll on our country, and on New Yorkers. The good news is now we know more than we did before about what is fueling these epidemics, and sugar-sweetened beverages are major contributors. The City is working to encourage residents to take sugary drinks out of their everyday diets. This proposal will complement the many other steps we are taking to slow the epidemic by supporting a healthier diet for everyone.

Dr. Richard Dianes, State Health Commissioner, said:

We continue to see a dramatic rise in obesity among children, especially in low-income communities. This initiative targets a major public health threat – the high consumption of sugary beverages – which have little to no nutritional value. Good nutrition is vital for a child’s growth and development, and I am pleased that New York is taking steps to ensure that families consume nutritious foods that promote good health, not obesity and a lifetime of serious health problems associated with it.

Health and Hospitals Corporation President, Alan Aviles said:

Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in New York City, and HHC hospitals and community health centers are battling the disease on many fronts. We care for more than 56,000 adults with diabetes and thousands more children and adolescents who are at the verge of the disease. We see too many cases of patients with heart attacks, kidney failure, blindness, and amputations as a result of complications from obesity related illness. By encouraging more families to choose healthier dietary options and avoid sugary drinks, we can address some of the adverse effects of diabetes which threatens the long term health status of whole communities, and increases the long term healthcare costs for our society at large.

It seems illogical that the main beneficiaries of the food stamp program are currently at highest risk of being obese – poorer children. The Mayor’s office states that over the last twenty years the association between low socioeconomic status and obesity is becoming more apparent. Sugary drink consumption among the city’s poorest residents is twice as high as among wealthy New Yorkers.

Just one sugary drink per day will eventually increase a child’s chances of becoming obese by 60%, compared to a lifestyle without sugar-sweetened beverages.

6% of food stamp benefits are spent on sugary beverages, according to the USDA.

Commissioner Robert Doar said:

The food stamp program is one of our nation’s great achievements, but it can always be improved. By excluding unhealthy, sugary drinks from the list of items allowed to be purchased with food stamp benefits, the program will come closer to meeting its goal of being a nutritional assistance program. Government should not be in the business of subsidizing poor health habits that end up costing taxpayers through higher Medicaid and Medicare costs.

Source: The City of New York, Office of the Mayor

Written by – Christian Nordqvist