Equity, Autonomy and Preference Formation in Social Policy: Evaluating Food and Nutrition Service Critiques in U.S. Food Policy from an Interventionist Perspective


It is no small diffident fact that sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption has increased dramatically in the United States over the last 30 years.  But, whereas SSB consumption is highest among young adults, child and adolescent consumption is not far behind.  And while economists agree that government intervention in a market is warranted when there are market failures that result in less than optimal production and consumption, several market failures exist for sugar-sweetened beverages.  First, many persons make consumption decisions with imperfect information, failing to fully appreciate the links between consumption and health consequences.  These decisions are likely to be further distorted by the extensive marketing that can raise the perceived benefits of consumption.  But exactly how much of a distortion can we expect?  I believe significant amount enough to warrant frequent advertisement campaigns beyond just the obese.  A second failure results from time-inconsistent preferences or decisions that provide short-term gratification but long-term harm.  This problem is exacerbated for children and adolescents who place a higher value on present satisfaction while more heavily discounting future consequences.  We must therefore be considerate to the criticism by well- wishing consumers of brands like Coca-Cola which has been in business for over one hundred and twenty years, that policies are modifying public assistance programs to promote a healthier diet among participants and this becomes inequitable, an issue that was recently raised by New York City’s request to exclude sugar-sweetened beverages from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs. 

I argue that there are two senses in which healthy food policies might be considered inequitable, they are unfair, and so violate distributive equality, or they are disrespectful and so violate social equality, or they are disrespectful and so violate social equality.  However, neither of these concerns offers decisive ethical objections to these policies.  Distributive equality does not require maximal consumer choice, and there are reasons why the government might prioritize citizens’ interests in promoting their health over their interests in consuming sugar-sweetened beverages when designing food assistance programs.  The concern that these policies send demeaning messages about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants, and so violate social equality, is more pressing.  However, I argue that there is hope.  Policies can be interpreted as sending various messages, and what a policy is interpreted as saying is complex and negotiated by the various interests and perspectives in a society.  It is not a foregone conclusion that health policy would be widely interpreted as sending negative messages about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs participants rather messages about the nutritional value of sugar-sweetened beverages.  Nevertheless, when there is a possibility of negative messaging, lawmakers and others in government have an obligation to participate in the public dialogue to ensure that the policy promotes everyone’s equality.  While there is a chance that the sweetened beverage exclusion could be interpreted as sending negative messages about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants, this is by no means an inevitable result, and it is a risk that can perhaps be mitigated. 

It is important to remember that non-soda SSBs have been making up the majority of SSBs in both middle and high schools.  While soda has been especially unlikely to be found in vending machines; non- soda SSBs have been widely available across competitive venues.  Access to soda has decreased significantly over the last five years; however, non-soda SSB access has not shown a similar decrease.  School policy allowing beverage supplier contractual involvement, for example, bottling contract incentives and beverage supplier ‘say’ in vending machine beverage choices, was related to increased SSB access.  However, the existence of developed nutritional guidelines was associated with lower SSB availability. 

Processes of incremental change in effective policy can vary in the extent to which they are continuous versus non-continuous.  Continuous incremental change involves a more or less non-stop process of small change that will endure for the full duration of a jurisdiction’s decision to ‘move’ or ‘impede’ sale of items.  At its source is a constant cause that operates without interruption.  By contrast, non- continuous incremental change in this type of consumption entails a series of small steps moving in the same direction over time.  This kind of change results from a serial or repeated causal process.

One objection to a SSB tax is that it would be regressive, that is just what NYC did in 2012 with a New York Soda Ban approved by the Board of Health.  In this ban, New York consented to limiting the sale of large-sized, sugary drinks.  The limits, however, did not apply to drinks sold in grocery stores, diet sodas, drinks that are to be more than 70 percent fruit juice, or that contained alcohol.  A second objection could be that taxing SSBs would not solve the obesity crisis and is a rather blunt instrument that affects even those who consume low amounts.  I argue that without habitual consumption there is hope for reversal of policy in the future.  Hasn’t this been a major accomplishment of agriculturalists in their promotion of acai berry caffeinated drinks as of late?  They’ve proved that sugary drinks can be sold successfully in major grocery chains like Whole Foods Stores.

 The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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