This article was posted on the New York Times website today and it deals with all the complexities involved in tackling the “obesity epidemic”. In summary, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seeking to ban the use of food stamps for purchasing sugar-laden drinks. This kind of policy-driven health measure is accompanied by the usual division of opinions. While some believe that it will ultimately be the ecological and environmental reforms that will change behaviours, others worry over increasing meddling by the state under the aegis of “health”. As this particular policy would only limit the choices of the most vulnerable populations, those who are recipients of government aid, it has consequently been deemed as patronising, stereotyping and of course, economically crippling.
As others in the comments section of the article have suggested, this kind of measure cannot be execute without equally enthusiastic efforts to educate and inform, but I do agree that it should be done. NYC has impressively decreased smoking prevalence with their tobacco control initiatives, such as the Smoke Free Air Act (SFAA) and increased taxation on cigarettes. This has been shown to be effective not only for the general population, but also in reducing smoking prevalence in ethnic minority populations, such as the large constituent of Chinese immigrants in NYC (Shelley et al 2008). This population can be similarly described as low-income and perhaps without the initial knowledge of the harms of cigarettes.
Decisions about food and drink are no different. Like cigarettes, they are and continue to be guided by finanical implications, public health initiatives and political agendas – what remains is actually very little personal freedom. Perhaps then for recipients of food stamps, the notion of a freedom to choose a soda or two is more important than any foreseeable health benefit, as their lives are even more deeply entangled in and affected by state policy, health reform, economic downturns and political whim than those less bound by such ridigities.
Shelley D, Fahs M, Yerneni R et al. Effectiveness of tobacco control among Chinese Americans: a comparative analysis of policy approaches versus community-based programs. Prev Med. 2008 Nov;47(5):530-6. (paper)