As mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg wanted his constituents to be healthier. He cracked down on smoking in public, trans fats in restaurants, and he really, really wanted New Yorkers to drink less soda.
Bloomberg’s famous “Big Gulp” ban sought to bar sodas larger than 16 ounces, but a judge said no. Before that, in 2010, Bloomberg also asked the federal government to let New York City disallow poor people from using federal food benefits to buy sweetened beverages.
The move was quintessential Bloomberg: seeking a public benefit through super paternalistic means. It didn’t pan out; the Obama administration said the anti-soda experiment would have been too much trouble for retailers and that the plans to measure its success were too sketchy.
At a Democratic debate on Tuesday, Bloomberg said that if he became president he would not insist on nationalizing the specific anti-obesity policies he pursued as mayor. But he suggested he wouldn’t let obesity go.
“I do think it’s the government’s job to have good science, and to explain to people what science says, and how to take care of themselves and extend their lives,” he said. “We are a country where there are too many people that are obese. We should do something about that.”
Bloomberg bragged that cities around the world have adopted smoking bans like New York’s. “It has saved an enormous number of lives,” he said. “So it just goes to show, if you have good public health, then you can do things.”
His attacks on soda may also have caught on, though to a lesser degree. Six local governments around the U.S. have sought to discourage soda consumption by imposing special taxes on sugary drinks. San Francisco, for instance, added a 1% per ounce tax on sugary beverages via voter referendum in 2016. Nationally, Americans have been drinking sugary beverages a little less.
Bloomberg is running for the Democratic nomination for president, but he won election to the New York mayor’s office as a Republican (in 2007 he dropped the affiliation and became an independent). His war on obesity overlapped with a Republican tradition of lamenting what poor people buy with government benefits, such as Ronald Reagan complaining of “strapping young bucks” using food stamps for steak in 1976.
The Trump administration is pushing a series of cuts to food benefits, and has halfheartedly proposed partially replacing food benefits with a box of shelf-stable items like rice and canned beans. But it denied a 2017 request from Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) to disallow soda and candy, citing the negative impact on business. (The USDA previously denied similar requests from Minnesota and Mississippi.)
Soda and candy requests will probably keep coming, and a President Bloomberg could be more willing to disregard concerns from the food industry, which essentially runs the program in return for a massive subsidy in the form of retail receipts. The idea of restricting food benefit purchases can be hugely popular, but Bloomberg’s campaign declined to specify where he currently stands.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, is one of the biggest social programs in the U.S., serving some 36 million Americans. Its monthly benefits average about $121 per person and can be used only for food products you would buy at a grocery store.
In 2010, at Bloomberg’s urging, the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, for permission to run a special project adding sodas to the list of prohibited items, which already includes alcohol and non-food items.
“The use of SNAP benefits to purchase foods of little or no nutritional value not only contradicts the intent of the program, it also effectively subsidizes a serious public health epidemic,” the request said. “Restrictions on food benefit purchases have been a component of the SNAP since its inception, and consumers and retailers are already accustomed to purchase restrictions.”
The shopping patterns of SNAP recipients are generally similar to those of non-beneficiaries, which in both cases means tons of soda, according to USDA data from 2011. Sodas were the most-purchased commodity for SNAP recipients that year and the second-most purchased for non-recipients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, consuming a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas and juices is basically terrible for you.
Rather than defend soda purchases, in its 2011 denial of the request the USDA said New York hadn’t really figured out which products to ban and that there was no way New York City’s food stores could update their systems to deal with hundreds of newly banned items. The agency noted that it had a pilot program testing incentives for healthier eating, an initiative that has since become a nationwide grant program.
“The New York City Health Department was right at the leading edge of initiatives to prevent chronic disease.”
Opposition to proposals like Bloomberg’s generally focuses on practical problems rather than the dietary implications. When Minnesota wanted to ban candy, for instance, the USDA said the state’s nutritional definition would block a Hershey bar but not a Kit-Kat, because of its flour content. Similar gray areas crop up with sweetened beverages that contain healthy ingredients like fruit juice or milk.
“When you go down this route, you are opening a real can of worms,” Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said at a 2017 hearing on the issue. “From what I can tell talking to my folks back home, that grocery stores have really no interest in being the food police.”
Opposition to food rules also came from Republicans and the food industry. The lone supportive voice on the witness panel at the 2017 hearing was the American Enterprise Institute’s Angela Rachidi, who previously worked for the New York government and had helped draft Bloomberg’s proposal. She said she hoped the then-new Trump administration would reconsider the idea.
“At a time when leaders of both parties are promoting evidence-based policy making, testing such an idea and rigorously evaluating the results should receive broad support,” Rachidi said.
Some public health experts say Bloomberg was totally right to want to try out a SNAP soda ban. Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of food studies and public health at New York University, said Bloomberg was ahead of his time.
“The New York City Health Department was right at the leading edge of initiatives to prevent chronic disease,” Nestle said.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty