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Mayor Looks To Ban Sugary Drinks From Food Stamp Users

NEW YORK (CBS 2/1010 WINS/WCBS 880/AP) -- Is it the latest example of too much government? Maybe even too much Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

First there were bike lanes and then no smoking on beaches. On Thursday came another proposal: no food stamps for soda or other sugared drinks.

LISTEN: 1010 WINS' Carol D'Auria reports the Mayor wants sugary drinks off the Food Stamp Program
LISTEN: WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reports Mayor Bloomberg is pushing to disallow the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps

CBS 2's Pablo Guzman talked to the mayor and also got some answers from food stamp recipients that could surprise you.

Obesity and diabetes are all too common in communities like East Harlem. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says sugared drinks pose a major public health problem for weight-related diseases, especially in low-income communities.

"I don't think anyone would suggest that you be able to take food stamps and buy cigarettes or buy alcohol," Bloomberg said.

No, but what Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson are asking the federal government to do is to block the city's 1.7 million food stamp recipients from using stamps to buy soda and sugared drinks. You may have already seen one of their anti-sugar commercials.

Bronx resident Anna Harkless, who receives food stamps, said the mayor should back off.

"Because maybe he don't drink it, it's OK? It's not fair! He does anything that he wants to do, and he don't think about the people, especially in a neighborhood like this," Harkless said.

Guzman then went one-on-one with the mayor over the issue.

Guzman: "'They're meddling in my life once again.' What do you say to them?"

Bloomberg: "We shouldn't be meddling. And we're not meddling! You have a right to go and buy full-sugared drinks. And no one's trying to take that away. But if you ask the public taxpayer to give you money that was designated to improve your health -- to give you more nutritious food -- and more of it -- then it shouldn't be used for things that are not nutritious."

Lillie Johns, who spoke to Guzman outside the East Harlem Pathmark on Thursday, also uses food stamps.

"But a lot of us are obese from drinking too many sodas! And I've come in here, and I've seen people with their shopping carts filled up with nothing but Pepsis!" Johns said.

Similar proposals have failed before, because even health advocates say they unfairly label people on food stamps as if they can't make healthy choices. A proposal to adopt a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened soda failed to get out of the state Legislature earlier this year; Bloomberg backed the state proposal.

"We continue to see a dramatic rise in obesity among children, especially in low-income communities," state Department of Health Commissioner Richard Daines said. "This initiative targets a major public health threat -- the high consumption of sugary beverages -- which have little to no nutritional value."

More than half of adult New York City residents are overweight or obese, along with nearly 40 percent of public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

City officials said lower-income residents are most likely to drink one or more sugar-sweetened drinks a day; type 2 diabetes is also twice as common among poor New Yorkers compared to the wealthiest.

USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee said Thursday the agency received the proposal and will consider it.

The department recently launched a pilot program to encourage food stamp recipients to make more healthful choices in their food shopping. Under the program, involving 7,500 randomly selected households in Massachusetts, participants get 30 cents added to their benefit balances for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables -- which reduces the cost of fresh produce by almost one-third.

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