Public health and industry profit

Governor, you’re right on this one. For two years, Gov. Paul LePage has been trying to persuade the federal government to allow the state of Maine to restrict the purchase of soda and candy through the food stamp (SNAP) program. Last week, for the second time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied the request.

In his own winsome way, the governor’s first request, to the Obama administration in 2016, said: “You maintain such a broken program that I do not want my name attached to it.” So much for smoothing the way. Request denied.

If the governor hoped for a more favorable outcome from the Trump administration, it was not to be. Despite suggesting support for an overhaul of the food stamp program, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue denied the request.

The feds may be reluctant on this issue, but it does have support in Maine. Republican Sen. Eric Brakey tried to get a junk food ban into the party platform at the Republican National Convention. The Democratic co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, Rep. Patricia Hymanson, said her caucus supports the idea. Two efforts were made to initiate the ban through state legislation. Both failed.

One of the reasons cited by the feds for refusing to go along with the LePage request was a lack of information on the impact of a sugary diet and the likely health benefits of a junk food ban. Seriously? Does this sound like the tobacco industry a few decades ago? Yes, it does. Does this lead one to ponder whether this is more about the protection of soda and candy manufacturers than it is about the protection of the nutritional status of food stamp recipients? Yes, it does.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service response to Maine in June 2016 was rife with bureaucratic density. The proposed “impact evaluation” was “not adequate to provide sufficient assurance of credible, meaningful results with respect to the consumption of sweetened beverages of candy or the impacts on obesity or other weight-related diseases.”

The study “does not have a counterfactual,” meaning a control group with which to compare results of the ban. There is no “pre- and post-implementation data collection” to compare purchasing habits before and after the ban. It would be difficult to collect “item-level purchase data.”

Further, the agency said it did not “want to be in the business of picking winners and losers among food products in the marketplace, or in passing judgment about the relative benefits of individual food products.” Ha! That’s a first. The federal government is in the business of picking winners and losers in just about every aspect of our lives, by way of subsidies to various industries, incentives for energy sources, preferences for American-made products, rebates for fuel-efficient cars and restrictions on tobacco and liquor products. We’re drawing the line on soda?

Though the latest USDA purchasing data is ancient (2011), it shows that “sweetened beverages” were the second largest category of SNAP purchases (after meat, poultry and seafood) at 9.3 percent of total purchases. That’s over $608 million spent annually on sweetened beverages. A full 20 percent of SNAP purchases were on “sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar.” The USDA points out, with conspicuous understatement, that “both SNAP and non-SNAP households made choices that may not be fully consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

According to an NIH study, sugar-sweetened drinks “are the largest source of added sugar in the US diet today.” Another NIH study describes a “correlation” between soft drink consumption and obesity, dental/bone problems, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, kidney health and bone fracture. Is this not sufficient reason to restrict the purchase of these products with public dollars, especially since more public dollars are required to fund the health care consequences? A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study ( projected such spending in Maine to be about $2.67 billion in 2018.

In the final paragraph of its June, 2016 correspondence, the USDA took a big swipe at Maine’s past performance. The letter stated they were obliged to note that “given the many other challenges Maine currently faces,” such as “chronic timeliness problems,” a “backlog of claims for State-caused errors totaling approximately $2 million,” “staffing issues and other general Program issues,” the Food and Nutrition Service would “need to take these into consideration before agreeing to move forward with such a demanding demonstration project.” Ouch.

LePage threatened to abandon the food stamp program altogether if the feds did not agree to the sugar blockade. That hasn’t happened yet, but all is not lost. Public support for banning soda and candy in SNAP programs is on the rise, and the feds may yet take action — right after they pass a budget and reform immigration.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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