SCANLON: Bubbles out of the bottle

The nannies aim the hopeless soda-pop war at food stamps

The history of welfare programs in the United States is chock full of restrictions on how recipients go about their daily lives. Some are reasonable and in the public interest, but others are heavy-handed and unduly intrusive.

For example, the recent push to block food-stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase carbonated soft drinks reeks of overreach.

Hopping on New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s anti-obesity bandwagon, South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has gone too far, proposing to curtail what food-stamp recipients may purchase in her state.

“You are looking at $1 billion that will no longer be put toward candy and chocolate and sodas and chips, but may be put into apples and oranges and things that are healthy.”

It is wishful thinking to expect that forbidding food-stamp users to buy soft drinks with their benefits will stop them from buying soft drinks altogether.

Food-stamp benefits may currently be used to buy “any prepackaged edible foods, regardless of nutritional value (e.g. soft drinks and confections),” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), the formal name of the food-stamp program, whose benefits are distributed by individual U.S. states. Items available in “fast-food restaurants and similar retail settings” cannot be purchased with food stamps.

A 2007 USDA report concluded that prohibiting the use of food stamps to purchase specific items would probably be pointless.

“There is no guarantee that restricting the use of food stamps would affect food purchases — other than substituting one form of payment (cash) for another (food stamps),” the report found. In other words, if you block food-stamp users from buying soft drinks with their benefits, they’ll probably buy soft drinks with cash.

And compiling a list of foods “acceptable” under SNAP would require increasing the federal bureaucracy.

According to the USDA, there are more than 300,000 food products available on the market, and each year about 12,000 new products find their way on to supermarket shelves. The department observes that “the task of identifying, evaluating, and tracking the nutritional profile of every food available for purchase would be substantial.” Government officials would squabble with manufacturers over whether their food items meet USDA standards. Marketplace winners and losers would be decided by a political process instead of by sovereign consumers.

Nine years ago, healthy-eating zealots in Minnesota, along with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, tried to forbid food-stamp recipients from purchasing soft drinks, candy bars and other items considered to be “junk food.”

The USDA quite properly refused Minnesota’s request to banish certain foods from the food-stamp program.

USDA Regional Administrator Ollice Holden found that in addition to causing “confusion and embarrassment” in the checkout aisle, Minnesota’s proposal would arbitrarily ban “only certain types of candy and soft drinks.” Mr. Holden thought it didn’t make sense that Minnesota would allow food-stamp users to buy Kit-Kat and Twix candy bars because they contain flour, but not Hershey bars, which do not.

Using similar reasoning, in 2011 the USDA slapped down a request from the obesity-obsessed Mr. Bloomberg to forbid New York City’s food-stamp beneficiaries to use their benefits to buy soft drinks and similar beverages.

USDA Associate Administrator Jessica Shahin said at the time that Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal was nixed because it would have been incredibly difficult to decide which beverages could or could not be bought with food stamps and to ascertain if banning some drinks helped to curb obesity.

In short, it’s too late to put the soft-drink genie back into the bottle. For better or worse, carbonated beverages long ago became a staple of the American diet.

Bottled soda water has been manufactured in the United States since 1835, according to the American Beverage Association. Root beer arrived on the scene in 1876, followed by the first cola-flavored beverage five years later.

The soft drink is as American as hot dogs and apple pie (and goes well with both).

Whether temporarily dependent on government aid or not, Americans should be able to reach for a Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, or Mountain Dew — in diet or sugared versions — without Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder.

Terrence Scanlon, a former chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, is president of Capital Research Center, a think tank and watchdog organization in Washington, D.C.

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