Should Taxpayers Subsidize Soda?

Scientists Question Whether Federal Nutrition Assistance Funds Should Be Used to Buy Obesity-Promoting Sugar-Sweetened Beverages


WASHINGTON—The soft drink industry receives a $4 billion subsidy from taxpayers each year, according to an editorial published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

According to the paper, that’s about how much carbonated soda is purchased with money from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as Food Stamps. And that total doesn’t include non-carbonated soft drinks. Considering that the overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is helping fuel an epidemic of obesity that disproportionately affects low-income people, the authors raise the question of whether it is time to exclude soda or other junk foods from the SNAP program in the same way that alcohol, tobacco, dietary supplement pills, and hot prepared foods are already excluded.

To be sure, efforts to limit SNAP purchases to healthier foods would draw intense opposition, writes Jonathan D. Shenkin, clinical assistant professor of the Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine and Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. SNAP participants appear to purchase at least 40 percent more carbonated soft drinks than other consumers do. At one major supermarket chain, SNAP participants bought 4.3 percent of carbonated soft drinks even though they only represented 1.8 percent of transactions. At another large chain, carbonated soft drinks accounted for 6.19 percent of the grocery bills of SNAP participants.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intended to help low-income families buy the foods they need to promote good health. It’s time to question whether the program should support the purchase of foods that promote disease,” said Shenkin.

If disallowing the use of SNAP funds to buy sugar-sweetened beverages proved to be politically unfeasible, as the authors acknowledge it might, a less controversial option might be to provide SNAP participants with a financial incentive to purchase the healthiest foods. Recipients’ Electronic Benefit Transfer cards could be credited with 30 additional cents for every dollar spent on fruits, vegetables, or whole grains, for example. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for every 10 percent decrease in the price of fruits or vegetables, SNAP recipients would increase their purchase by 6 or 7 percent.

The federal government’s largest nutrition education program is also funded by SNAP. Called SNAP-Ed, the program gives almost $400 million in matching grants to states to encourage low-income consumers to adopt healthier diets. But Shenkin and Jacobson point out that the USDA actually prohibits the use of SNAP-Ed grants for campaigns that steer people away from junk foods. USDA stopped health officials in the city of San Francisco, and the states of Maine, California, and Wyoming from using federal money for programs aimed at reducing soda consumption. CSPI has called on the Obama administration to end what it calls a “gag rule” instituted during the Bush administration.

“The federal government should be doing everything it can to reduce the consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, which promote tooth decay, weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases,” said Jacobson. “SNAP should be oriented toward increasing the consumption of good, healthy food. None of the $65 billion invested in nutrition assistance in 2010 should end up paying for Coke, Pepsi, or Mountain Dew.”

Shenkin and Jacobson also say that Congress should fund an Institute of Medicine review of the goals, successes, and limitations of the SNAP and SNAP-ed programs. Such a report could identify ways that the programs could foster healthier diets and provide an authoritative basis for Congress to make changes.

The authors point out that another powerful means of discouraging soft drink consumption is taxation. A federal excise tax of 12 cents per 12 ounces could raise upward of $15 billion a year and decrease consumption by about 10 percent. Taxes on that order have been proposed in New York State, Philadelphia, and nationally, but have been beaten back by well-funded industry lobbying and advertising campaigns. At least 24 states and the city of Chicago have special sales or excise taxes on soda that raise substantial revenues, but aren’t large enough to decrease consumption.

Though excluding sugar-sweetened beverages from the SNAP program is controversial, setting nutrition standards for government food programs is hardly new. The school lunch and breakfast programs administered by USDA comply with strict nutrition standards that exclude soda and junk food, as does the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which is geared to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children.

“Soda is already one of the cheapest things in the supermarket, and it promotes expensive-to-treat diseases and stark health disparities,” Jacobson said. “Short of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, it’s hard to imagine a product less worthy of a government subsidy than soda. It’s time to put the ‘N’ back in SNAP.” 

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