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Wait a New York minute!

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the use of food stamps to buy soda and other sugared drinks is going too far.

October 15, 2010

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes a healthy interest in society's eating habits. At times his ideas are visionary, such as requiring chain restaurants to list nutritional information on their menus, a law that was copied in California. Better consumer information is always a good idea; it's startling to realize that a supposedly healthy salad can contain more than half the calories most people should eat in a day.

Then there are Bloomberg's less welcome ideas, the ones that reach into shopping carts. He has, for example, launched a campaign to pressure manufacturers to lower the sodium content in their foods rather than leaving it to consumers to make their own choices. His latest push is even more worrisome: seeking permission from federal authorities to prohibit the use of food stamps to buy soda and other sugared drinks, in order to reduce obesity among the poor.

Of course we'd love to see families using food stamps to buy only the healthiest foods — broccoli, whole grains, fish. For that matter, we'd love to see everyone eating such foods. But how many of us are paragons of nutritional virtue, never letting the salty crunch of a potato chip pass our lips?

Food stamps were created to ensure that everyone has at least enough food for basic nutrition. Taxpayers might reasonably prefer that the hard-earned money they contribute to the common good not be used for junk food; after all, obesity and poor nutrition are serious and costly societal problems. But the purpose of the program is to aid people in need, not dictate their every mouthful in ways that most Americans would never allow to be imposed on themselves. What next? Outlawing corn chips with one's salsa? Birthday candles stuck in a bowl of brown rice instead of a cake?

As well intended as Bloomberg's latest campaign is, it cannot help being arbitrary. If the purpose is to reduce obesity, there's little reason to allow the use of food stamps to buy fruit juices, some of which contain little nutrition yet more calories than a Coke, while banning sports drinks that have fewer than half as many calories.

Scientists are still determining the chief contributors to obesity in our society. Too much sugar, oversized portions, high fat and the dearth of vegetables and exercise all play a role. Bloomberg should stick to campaigns to educate people — the menu law, and perhaps more nutrition education for children and families through the New York City school system, which he oversees. Infantilizing food stamp recipients, and making lifestyle choices for them that aren't made for other Americans, is a demeaning and, most likely, ineffective way to ensure a healthier populace.

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