Pop Politics

A study due to come out next week in the journal Diabetes Care draws a conclusion that I don’t think will surprise anyone: drinking sugared sodas can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Resarchers at the Harvard School of Public Healthat did a meta-analysis that pooled 11 studies which encompassed about 300,000 patients that examined the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and different metabolic outcomes.

The findings showed that drinking one 12-ounce serving per day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by about 15% (compared to people that had < 1 sugary drink per month), and increasing that to one to two sugary drinks per day increased the risk to 26%.  As outcome analyses go, those are pretty big numbers.

Slurp Slurp

So, as a society, what can we do about this?  What should we do about this?  I’d say the fundamental proposition of America is the right to individual freedom.  Certainly, people do all sorts of things that are bad for them in the long run:  they eat too much, and too much of the wrong things.  They drink too much.  They smoke.  They don’t exercise enough.  You know how it goes – but hey, it’s your life, right?  If you wanna blow it on Ding-Dongs and Dr Pepper, go for it.

Last year, I posted about a bid in New York to start taxing sugary sodas and “energy” drinks.  The position was that we’re all going to bearing the healthcare burden of an obese and diabetic citizenry, so let’s treat sodas like cigarettes – tax them with the dual purpose of raising money (to help cover healthcare costs) and as a disincentive to their purchase.

That went over like a lead balloon – with cries that the government was going too far in trying to tell us what we could and couldn’t eat.  That we as a populace were not their spoiled children that’d had too much dessert (you know, even though we have been having too much dessert for years).

NYC Ad Campaign

Well, this month, NYC mayor Bloomberg has asked the Federal government for the authority to ban NYC’s 1.7 million food stamp recipients from using them to buy sugary sodas.  Here the argument goes, “Okay, so maybe telling folks with their own money what they can and can’t buy at the grocery store is too far, but since food stamps are the government’s money, they should get a say.”  Already you can’t buy cigarettes and alcoholic beverages with food stamps, this would just expand that umbrella.  And as with those other products, there’s nothing that says a food stamp recipient can’t use their own money to buy such things.

So – a good idea, or government behavior police gone wild?

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46 thoughts on “Pop Politics

  1. I think I’m in favor of it. Especially since, if I lived in New York, as a tax payer, I’d be footing the bill anyway. I was behind a family at CVS the other day & they used their Lone Star card (which is what the food stamps program is called here) to buy nothing but soda, chips, and candy. It’s hard to be all gung-ho for supporting habits like that, especially since I assume we’re also paying for their health and dental care.

    I don’t know. In theory it seems reasonable, but I’m always wary about giving the government more control – although, as you pointed out, there are already limits as to what food stamps can buy.

    Is that a wishy-washy enough answer for you? :)

    • Yeah — it’s a weird balance between coercing good behavior (both from a budgetary and overall health perspective) and dictating what people can and can’t do. Obviously, cigarettes and booze are still available and cars are still made to go over 70 mph.

      Still — there’s a little bit of “we know what’s best for you” that the gov’t can get into that’s a little un-nerving — even when they’re right! :)

  2. This might surprise you a little, but I’d be all for that. Like you said, you can’t tell someone what they can or can’t spend their own money on. But I’m not 100% against government assistance, as long as it’s used appropriately and temporarily. From what I know of it, I like the the setup of WIC. It’s short-term, and you can’t spend the money on just anything….it has to be food of nutritional value. I mean sure, junk food makes life a little more enjoyable, but it’s certainly not a necessity, and therefore should not be allowed to be paid for by the taxpayers.

    • Why aren’t they the right thing to do? You can argue that better education and an over-taxed product have decreased smoking rates over the last 40 years. Tickets and education on seat-belt usage has saved thousands of lives, too.

      • Why aren’t they the right thing to do?

        If I may jump in, my opinion is that sin taxes are a bad idea because your sin is my god-given right. Should we tax pork more than beef (and both more than chicken), because pork is worse for your heart? Should we tax halal more than non-halal (or vice versa)?

        I view seat belts as a different matter than sugar and smoking. Wearing a seat belt in a crash reduces the chances that you will lose control and reduces inpatient hospital care costs by 50%, which is a direct savings to the consumer. In addition, driving is not an inalienable right.

        The effects of a sugar tax and a smoking tax are far less obvious and direct. Sure, smoking has decreased in the past few decades – but how much of that is due to the taxes and how much is due to the intensive publicity campaign? And it is an inalienable right for me to do what I want with my body (no matter what the Supreme Court doesn’t say).

      • John — I disagree with the smoking argument. I think that the percentage of cigarette usage has declined because of both vigorous taxation and education. In fact, junk food may be this generation’s (and the next’s) cigarette.

        You may have a right to put whatever you want in your body, but that doesn’t mean that someone has an inalienable right to sell it to you — and regulation of commerce for the common good is well within governmental purview.

  3. The confused libertarian Marxist in me says this is unfair to the poor, that they should have the same rights as the rich to ruin their bodies. :-D But in reality, the stats show that the wealthier and more educated among us take better care of themselves and live longer and healthier lives. One could argue they also have access to private gyms, trainers, better health care, and more expensive organic or “artesian” food: but if access is the only determiner of good health, then why do so many federal nutrition and public health programs aimed at the poor so often go unused? Is it lack of education in self-care? Is it because soft drinks are widely available in low-income areas, while it’s harder to find, say, a pint of Naked Juice (which does cost a lot more than a liter bottle of Pepsi)?

    But I dislike the idea of the government using a stick to force people eat the way it thinks they should eat (or drink, in this case). I’d prefer the Berkeley approach, where Alice Waters comes to the schools and teaches kids how to grow and cook their own tasty, organic food. The kids in turn go home to their families and pass on the gospel of nutrition—and don’t tell me children don’t have the power to change their parents, as an ex-pack-a-day smoker will tell you. An eight-year-old scolding you for drinking a Big Gulp of Dr. Pepper is more effective than any tax or amount of government nagging.

    • HG — well, under this the poor can still buy crappy food, just not with our money. They can still buy booze and cigarettes too.

      You do bring up one of the huge issues in that in poor areas, fresh foods are hard to find and that junk food is everywhere. And why is that? I mean, if whole foods could turn a profit, don’t you think they’d be in those areas too? I do think that it’s a combination of lack of education on eating nutritionally and plain old laziness. Healthy food can take longer to find and prepare, so you have to make an effort. Junk food is easy and fast.

      • I’m still troubled by this kind of argument: part of it is that I’m getting tired of the trope “taxpayers’ money” being used as a stick to beat the poor, the undocumented, the addicted, and even government itself. (Especially here in Sacramento, which everyone seems to think is a giant black hole that sucks up “taxpayers’ money.”) The other part is its Victorian infantilize-the-poor atttitude: “You obviously don’t know how to take care of yourself, so we’re going to tell you what to eat and what to drink.” Yes, they can buy Oreos and Pepsi and Cheetos on their own dime, but for a lot of families, the only dime they have comes from food stamps and public assistance.

        I would prefer a tax that hits everyone who buys junk food: I don’t think we should simply punish the poor for bad shopping and diet choices. Teenaged boys, who are probably the worst offenders against common sense and pro-health policies, would get hit the hardest: though I might argue that it would be their parents who would suffer for their willful ignorance, not the boys.

      • HG — I’m not sure I’m suggesting we infantilize the poor (though I like the phrase, I have to remember it…) by curbing their ability to buy certain things with gov’t money. And the data backs up that the poor and uneducated buy more crappy food than the affluent and educated.

        I would also approve of an across-the-board tax.

  4. Steve – I’d suggest one small change in wording. Food stamps are *our* money, not the government’s (semantics, I know, but true nonetheless considering we are the source). That being the case, heck yes, ban the non-essentials like sugary sodas and energy drinks (I’d include a host of other items as well). As Ben Franklin said “I am for doing good to the poor, but…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

    • Jim — yes, you’re right about it being “our” money — and if you look at the top cartoon and replace the parents with Uncle Sam or you and me — is that how you want to spend your money?

      As for the poor, where does “handout” stop and “hand up” start? When i was laid-off, I was thankful for unemployment insurance that supplemented our family income — but at no time did I think, wow if I could just get this all the time I wouldn’t ever have to work again.

      • I think this is interesting, Steve. I am doing an intensive search for work – but until my seasonal job begins again, I have unemployment. A few job prospects I have offer better pay – but the companies do not offer one thing unemployment does – health insurance. The last time I took a lousy paying job, MassHealth still said I made too much money to qualify. I wish the State would tell me I was not allowed health insurance UNTIL I found a job, then I would feel like that was fair. I will be breaking Mass state law once I get work and cannot afford $500 per month.

  5. If they put the tax on smoking products and people still buy them, they will still buy soda and chips. Not sure if there is any right way of doing it, but I do believe that the government has a right to spend it’s money, our money, in a fiscally responsible way. If crap is already not allowed to be bought with their funds through food stamps, why not just widen the definition of crap to include junk foods.

    • Kzinti — I completely agree, but who gets to be the arbiter of what’s junk food? Sodas and energy drinks are easy, because they have essentially zero nutritional value versus a ton of calories. Other things are less clear. What about a Big Mac? What about a cheeseburger made from organic beef, with fresh lettuce, onions and tomatoes on a whole wheat bun? Are both of those junk food?

      • Fast food does not always equal junk food. It connotates, or at least should connotate, convenience. I believe any structured approach to this problem should include a minimum nutritional value.

  6. I’d prefer to see the government stop subsidizing corn crops and all the evil additives made from corn and added to ALL of our food.

    Till then, I think this would be an interesting step. There’s just as much sugar in most fruit drinks but people don’t drink them like they do fizzy caramel colored sugar water. What the heck, give it a try.

    • L — you can probably argue too, that at least a fruit juice drink (made from actual fruit) — can at least provide some nutritional components along with the sugar — which is where things get grey.

      I also agree that the rise of corn syrup laden foods has been a terrible trend and needs to be moved away from. Interestingly, if you went back to actual sugar (over corn syrup), products would be more expensive and so junk food wouldn’t be as cheap.

  7. My question is, where do we draw the line? What about the amount of sugar in yogurt and ketchup? Red meat is not supposed to be good for you either. Should food stamp recipients only be allowed to buy chicken and fish? Would that include fish sticks and chicken nuggets? Kool-aid mix doesn’t have sugar until you add it. How would that be prevented?

    I don’t think this can be a simple yes or no.

    • bec — you bring up a great question of “where do you stop?” and more importantly “who gets to decide?” — sodas and energy drinks are easy targets because they’re high in calories with zero nutritional value — other things are much more grey.

    • QofB — can you define nutritious? Is a “special-K bar” with chocolate (but some vitamins, minerals and protein as well) nutritious? A “kudos” bar is more like candy though — but the difference between them isn’t that great.

  8. I just want to point out one thing. It isn’t the sugar in the sugary drinks that puts people at risk for type two diabetes. Naked Juice which is healthy is loaded with calories which will also put you at risk for type two diabetes if you drink enough. It is the pounds you put on from drinking them. You could eat sugar all day long and it will not “give you” diabetes. It will make you fat however, and the extra fat will put a stress on your pancreas which will eventually poop out….

    The tax on Cigarettes has reduced smoking, it’s true. In Florida they are taxed highly and I’ve met a ton of people who told me they quit because they just couldn’t afford it anymore.

    I small tax on Soda and candy and cakes would be alright with me, but a large one, like the one they levy on Cigarettes would make me angry.

    • Mizz — actually, it IS the sugar that will lead to insulin resistance and eventually burn out your pancreas, leading to T2D and too much high-sugar fruit juice will lead there too (though hopefully you’re getting some nutritional value out of it too).

      Of course though diabetes and obesity go hand in hand like fries and a shake — and when you draw in too much sugar — especially in big spikes when someone gorges on a huge meal — you end up depositing fat as well, which leads to a whole other host of problems.

  9. Of all the habits to pick up from the West, the East chooses the wrong ones. You won’t believe how sugar drinks have taken over our people here too. No birthday party is complete without a fanta. And given that we are more genetically predisposed to diabetes and cardiac problems, it is catastrophic.
    Food stamps should clearly be disallowed from being spent on unhealthy food items.

    • Lakshmi — the evidence since the Second World War continues to mount, that when a population embraces a “Western” diet, diabetes and obesity come roaring in behind it. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen it on a scale that India could present. Truly horrible — unless you’re a pharmaceutical executive!

      • Ah yes, my but they do have a cure for everything. At least everything that requires a pill for life. Those pesky things like Cancer and AIDS are a different matter. One pill, one cure, not so much money in those, especially since you can’t even have the rights to the formulas or ingredients to cure some of the most common types of cancers, because they are already in the public domain. Nope, no money there…

  10. I don’t understand. From what I know, all this crap was available for generations. I know unhealthy food is cheap, but is there really only one reason more Americans are having these problems? There was a recent study showing that being sleep deprived is a cause of obesity as well (direct and indirect relation to food, but still….) also genetics, maybe environmental factors. I don’t think it’s as straightforward as we’re making it out to be.

    And although we’ve banned smoking in most places in MA, I’d love to see if lung cancer rates have really been affected. Nearly half those cases, (again, from my memory so I may be wrong), are women who never smoked. Pollution? Maybe second hand smoke? I just don’t know if all the facts are there and if maybe some awareness is in order. I know the gloomy anti-smoking campaigns worked somewhat.

    • Em — well, it’s a combination of things. Not only is more junk food available, but it’s relative cost to “real” food, continues to decline — making it even easier to choose “more”. In addition, you have processed food containing non-natural fats and HFCS. Tack on top of that a sedentary population and you got yourself a real problem.

      I actually think the last one is a big difference. When folks performed physical work, they gave themselves a LOT of calories to burn and having some sweets might be okay — but today, you have a sedentary population that sits at home, sits in their cars and sits and their computers at work etc. No wonder we can get by with <2000 cal/day.

      • Good points. I guess we are more sedentary, but didn’t people start becoming couch potatoes in the ’80s? But computers were not as “everywhere” as now, I suppose. The other thing though is that even a 4-mile run only burns off the calories of a damned muffin (curses!) so I wonder if exercise really helps that much. For health, yes…..weight? Maybe like you said, people may have exercised all day at work.

        We had a friend who was 300+ lbs (now deceased). Poor guy did not stand a chance in hell of losing that weight. This makes me wonder if overweight people, who have no disadvantage against them having offspring, have passed along some kind of gene which dooms their kids. I know not a thing about that gene topic so I’ll stop there. ;)

      • As a genetic marvel, yeah right, my family was for many generations the typical hunter-gatherer. Only the strong survive was truly the way it was. But this also brings about new problems in today’s readily available 24 hour a day food supply. Our ancestors grew up promoting bodies that would be able to quickly store excess food energy as fat because it never knew when meals would be readily available. So, now that nature has seen to that, food is so available that our bodies are only to happy to continue to store the excess as fat, only at an alarming rate nowadays.

        It’s a vicious cycle. That which ensured our survival back then is that which could end our blood lines much earlier in these days and times of overabundance.

  11. Wow, Steve…quite the conversation you’ve stirred up.

    I could go either way — it’s a slipperly slope when the government takes control (the Libertarian in me cringes at the thought), but then again, those sugary drinks lead directly to increased health care costs, which taxpayers end up footing the bill for. My guess is that most people on food stamps don’t have health insurance, so the rest of us get stuck with the cost.

    I am ALL in favor of some of the wonderful programs out there to bring fresh veggies into the inner city and get all that HFCS crap out of public schools. Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan and others are starting a movement, and hopefully it will spread a bit.

    Another problem is, when a poor person has a dollar and they can buy either 2 pears or a Big Mac, they’re going to go with a Big Mac — people need to run on calories and while pears are more nutritional, they won’t give a person enough energy to survive. Then the addictive parts of a Big Mac (I fully believe there are addictive chemicals in processed foods) make the person want more Big Macs. Pears taste weak. And it’s a downward spiral from there. Just try getting a kid raised on Mountain Dew to drink water, and you’ll see what I mean.

    • I’m not sure there needs to be more in a Big Mac than the classic combo of salt and fat. :) As kzinti mentioned above, we evolved to be “starvation ready” — storing fat for lean times. These days, there are no “lean times”, at least from a calorie availability standpoint. And with our sedentary lifestyles, we certainly don’t burn enough calories to offset what we bring in.

  12. I’ve stayed out of this thread as long as I could because I am a social worker, who worked and put himself through University without any help from anyone. It sounds like I’m a real hero to many who think others are living in poverty because they choose to. Poverty is a very complex symptom of a society that thinks only of it’s wealthy. You do not cure poverty by supporting the have’s in society.
    The sugary soda pops aren’t the problem, but when you are poor you eat what you can afford. In this day and time what is affordable is also what is the most refined and least likely to be good for you.
    Let’s stop blaming the poor on our social ills and put the burden on our system that favors the rich. If you want to stop handing out tokens for junk food, why not make whole foods available to those on stamps instead.

    • Paolo — you bring up a couple of good points that reach beyond the idea of what food stamps should be used for. The gov’t gives the poor food stamps, but much of what they can find is junk food. Does this mean the gov’t shouldn’t give assistance? If the assistance was given in specific “healthy” foods, that would remove the person’s choice perhaps moreso than forbidding a few unhealthful items. I think the real needs are: a) to make better food more widely available, and b) better education for everyone regarding better eating choices.

  13. Pingback: 2010 in review | Stevil

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