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Opinion

Proposals to ban purchase of sugary drink with food stamps won't work

The same flaws that caused a New York judge to overturn Mayor Bloomberg's ban on big sugary drinks are inherent in proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Such bans are unlikely to help fight obesity and can do substantial damage to the safety net.

By Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach / March 13, 2013

Soft-drink cup sizes are displayed at a news conference at City Hall in New York, May 31, 2012. On March 11, a judge invalidated New York City's plan to ban large sugary drinks from eateries. Op-ed contributor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach writes of proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps: 'There are better policy ideas out there that are more likely to the improve diets of food stamp recipients.'

Andrew Burton/Reuters/File

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Evanston, Ill.

Monday's court ruling blocking Mayor Bloomberg’s 'soda ban' restored New Yorkers’ freedom to supersize their sugary drinks. The judge reasoned that the rule limiting the size of sugary drinks to be sold at NYC eateries was arbitrary and capricious because it applied to some but not all food establishments, it excludes other beverages with higher concentrations of sweeteners, and because the loopholes in the rule – such as no limits on refills – “serve to gut the purpose of the rule.”

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Various proposals to limit soda consumption have been popular among the public health community. Advocates ranging from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman are calling for a ban on the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages with food stamps. Media outlets recently reported health officials in South Carolina are considering requesting permission to implement such a ban. A similar proposal in New York City was recently rejected.

The same types of flaws that caused the New York judge to overrule the soda size-limits are inherent in these proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Not only will this policy likely not change what food-stamp recipients drink, but it may also harm the overall food-stamp program.

The food stamp program – officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – is a cornerstone of America’s safety net, providing food assistance to just more than 1 in every 7 Americans.

Monthly SNAP benefits are distributed via electronic benefit transfer cards that function like debit cards, which can be used at most grocery stores and many other outlets such as convenience stores and farmers markets. Since its inception in the 1960s, the program's recipients have been able to use their benefits to purchase almost any foods at the grocery store, except for alcohol, vitamins, and hot foods intended for immediate consumption like rotisserie chickens.

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