New York takes new aim at sugary drinks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York expanded its anti-obesity campaign on Thursday with a proposal to ban the use of food stamps to buy sugary drinks, drawing beverage industry complaints that it is another government attempt to tell people how to behave.

A Coca-Cola bottle is seen with other beverages in New York June 23, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor David Paterson asked the U.S. government to ban the purchase of soda pop and sweetened fruit drinks with food stamps -- the federal vouchers used by 42 million low-income Americans buy food.

They called sugar-sweetened beverages the largest single contributor to the obesity epidemic.

“This is so simple. It’s not like a disease like cancer (that) we don’t know how to cure. This we know how to cure. Stop eating extra calories,” Bloomberg told a news conference.

“There’s nothing wrong with an occasional one. But the kids are drinking an enormous amount of full-sugar beverages and they would switch to diet beverages. So next time one of the companies calls, I’m sorry. Our children’s lives are more important than anything else,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg has used the power of the city government to promote other health measures, including a campaign to cut down on salt and a ban on trans fats in restaurant food, and a requirement that chain restaurants display calorie counts.

In 2003 the city banned smoking in bars and restaurants, generating howls of protest at the time from smokers and non-smokers who saw it as a case of government creeping into private lives, but the law has since become widely accepted.

Paterson has also sought to combat obesity and raise money with a proposed tax on sugary drinks, but it was opposed in the state legislature under lobbying pressure from the beverage industry.

The American Beverage Association, a trade association, criticized the proposal as “just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it.”

Nearly 40 percent of New York City public school children are obese, while overall obesity rates are 30 percent in the poorest households compared to 17 percent in the wealthiest households, the city and state said in a joint statement.

Obesity-related illnesses cost the state nearly $8 billion in medical costs per year, the statement said.

Some 1.7 million New York City residents, and 2.9 million statewide, receive food stamp benefits.

Food stamps cannot be used to buy other products deemed harmful such as alcohol and tobacco.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamps program, said in a statement it would “review and consider” New York’s proposal.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Eric Walsh