Monday, October 11, 2010

Sweet and Sour Policy

The NYC effort to conduct an experiment on food stamp recipients may not be a slam dunk-at least according to this NY Times report: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg may face legal and political hurdles in carrying out his ambitious plan to bar food-stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy sugar-sweetened drinks, food policy experts said Thursday."

It appears that the initiative might need congressional approval: "New York City on Wednesday asked the United States Department of Agriculture for permission to conduct a two-year experiment barring the city’s 1.7 million users of food stamps from spending them on soda and other beverages with added sugar. But experts said that the Agriculture Department lacked the authority to grant such permission, and that the proposal would require Congress to change laws governing the food-stamp program."

What do suppose these scientific mavens will be able to determine in a two year time frame? The problem with experiments of these kinds is that they lack the ability to control for other intervening variables-humans being a historically unruly lot. But, what the heck, why not do it anyway and see if we can find out more than we did when the failed menu labeling experiment was initiated by the previous commissioner of health.

When it was documented by the city's own study that calorie posting had really no effect on the targeted obese fast food customer, the DOH didn't call the whole thing off-nor did it ever try to determine what kind of extra costs the measure was imposing on fast food franchise operators (many of whom are minority entrepreneurs). So, the soda restrictions will likely prove nothing but the ability of the government to regulate behavior.

And let's be clear, this regulation is for the uninformed lower class fools-not for the smart guys who work for Bloomberg's own company; as the Times reports: "Bloomberg L.P., the media and financial information company founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has one perk its employees almost universally love: free snacks. At the sixth-floor pantry in its glossy Upper East Side headquarters, employees can pick from a health-conscious menu of celery sticks, bananas, freshly made peanut butter and 100-calorie snack packs. There is also free Coke, Pepsi, orange Fanta, ginger ale and Mountain Dew — exactly the types of drinks Mr. Bloomberg this week said he wanted to prohibit poor New Yorkers from buying with their food stamps."

As the Times notes, the mayor doesn't only chew from both sides of his mouth: "It is hardly the first time that Mr. Bloomberg’s policies as New York City’s health mayor have come into conflict with his personal eating habits, or, in this case, nutritional options at a place he is closely associated with. He is known for negotiating voluntary reductions in salt by food companies, and putting salt on his own saltine crackers; for fighting rising obesity among his constituents, and for serving comfort food like grilled hot dogs and ice cream sundaes at his town house."

But the mayor does put this effort into the right context-it's about cost controls over those who are receiving government largess: "At a news conference on Thursday where he announced that he was requesting federal permission for a two-year ban on the use of food stamps for sugared drinks, Mr. Bloomberg talked about the “enormous correlation” between those drinks and obesity and diabetes, and asserted that taxpayers did not want to subsidize bad nutrition."

So, as we have said, the danger here is not the correlation between obesity and the consumption of soda; but between government subsidies and government control over behavior-and the more someone else is paying for your health benefits, or controlling the size and scope of these benefits, the more it will impose parameters on what is considered acceptable behavior. It goes without saying, that acceptable parameters are always accompanied by a lengthy set of rules and bureaucrats to enforce them.

Is soda the best thing for overweight folks to consume? Of course it isn't-but neither are Hostess Twinkies and Moon Pies. To truly control intake, a wider net will have to be cast; but rest assured that those being schooled in the Bloomberg University Public Health will be prepared when the next wave of health regulatory expansionism is ushered in.

Think not? Well, here's the scary part-Bloomberg thinks of himself as a progressive pioneer in this area: "New York City officials said they are confident that their request to the federal government for a two-year ban on using food stamps to buy sweetened drinks will be approved and ultimately adopted nationwide. "If New York does it and it works, the rest of the world copies,'' Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference Thursday attended by Gov. David Paterson and other officials."

In our view, while the upcoming election cycle is dominated by economic concerns, there is also an underlying worry about the way in which the past two years of government expansion has the real potential to curtail liberty-particularly in the health care schemata that was passed this year. The Bloomberg efforts to regulate and tax health choices and behaviors is the friendly face of an effort that is fraught with danger for those of us who still believe in the sanctity of individual freedom of choice.

If there is a November rebuke to this progressive mindset, than perhaps the mayor's view of NYC's path breaking status will prove to just another example of false prophecy. Stay tuned.