FARMINGTON – Readers of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram were probably as confused as I was to discover Gov. LePage and Bill Nemitz in agreement on an issue (“Bill Nemitz: Is that Gov. LePage picking a soda fight? Sweet!” Jan. 6).
The administration has introduced a bill to prevent the use of food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to purchase soda, an idea that received a full-throated endorsement from your columnist.
Obesity is a serious problem, and we must find better ways to address it. I also believe that our tax dollars should be spent wisely and that our safety net should raise people up — not keep them confined to a life of poverty.
But once again we are grasping for a quick and easy political answer to a large and complex social issue. Does anybody really believe that making an example of poor people by taking soda away from them is actually going to improve our economy or their health?
Let’s be clear, this bill does nothing to reduce the cost of SNAP. Even if it did, it wouldn’t help at all in solving our current state budget shortfall. SNAP is funded entirely by the federal government. There are no state dollars involved — and therefore no savings to the state taxpayer.
This bill won’t make anybody healthier, either. It is yet another attempt to blame local non-alcoholic beverage distributors for the obesity epidemic. The facts do not support that claim; in fact, they show just the opposite.
Total consumption of full-calorie sugar-sweetened beverages has declined every year in the past decade, both in Maine and nationally. More and more consumers are looking for healthier low- and no-calorie beverage options — like the diet cola that your columnist, by his own admission, enjoys on a semi-regular basis.
The change in consumer preference is reflected in the mix of beverages we sell. In 2000, full-calorie soda accounted for more than half of the total; in 2010, it was less than 40 percent. (The total consumption of all beverages has remained relatively flat over the past 10 years, so that is a real decrease.)
By contrast, sales of diet soda, juices and similar drinks increased by 42 percent. Sales of bottled water have been even more remarkable, increasing nearly 300 percent in the past decade. Water now accounts for almost a third of what we sell.
That change has led to a significant reduction in the amount of calories per person per day attributable to soda. Since 2001, the average has fallen — by 25 percent.
You would think that if the connection between soda and obesity were as strong as some people insist, then obesity rates should be going down over that same period. In fact, obesity rates have continued to go up.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this ill-conceived proposal is that, as written, it would also prohibit the purchase of low- and no-calorie beverages — like water — from SNAP. That doesn’t make any sense if the purported objective of the bill is to make people healthier.
There is no evidence to suggest that people receiving SNAP benefits buy soda in greater amounts than people who do not receive SNAP benefits. In fact, a substantial body of research — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has shown that SNAP participants are smart shoppers and that there is little difference in nutrient intake between them and higher-income consumers.
Obesity is a complex, multifaceted problem. If we want to address it successfully, we need to consider all the factors — foods, portion sizes, lack of physical activity — that contribute to it. People do not want to be told — especially by their government — what they should and shouldn’t eat. And that is why proposals that single out one group of people or one product haven’t worked — and won’t work.
Ultimately, the types of initiatives that will work are ones that provide people with information to help them make informed decisions. To that end, in 2011 beverage companies began placing larger calorie labels on the front of every can, bottle and pack we produce. That has made it easier for consumers to access calorie information, which helps them make decisions about which beverage choice is right for them and their families.
Surely when Gov. LePage and Bill Nemitz agree on an issue it is an apocalyptic moment. But neither of them is right on this one. Let’s make every effort to find real and comprehensive solutions to the obesity epidemic, instead of idly picking out a few political scapegoats.
Allan Trask is owner/operator of Farmington Coca-Cola and treasurer of the Maine Beverage Association.