Tops of soda cans
Tops of soda cans - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Among the many other things he's known for, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken up the cause of public health. He's banned smoking in bars in the Big Apple, he's outlawed trans fats in restaurants. Today, he took aim at Coke, Pepsi and the rest of the sugary-drink crowd. Bloomberg asked the Department of Agriculture to change the rules on food stamps so that New Yorkers can't use them to buy sugar-sweetened drinks.

Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports.

John Dimsdale: New York wants to study the effects of a temporary, two-year ban on sugary drinks for the nearly two million city residents on food stamps. Would poor people make better nutritional choices? Or just spend their own money on certain sodas, juices and sports drinks?

Michael Jacobson at the Center for Science in the Public Interest says USDA should allow the experiment, if, for nothing else, to settle the argument.

Michael Jacobson: Nutrition advocates say it's crazy to allow people to buy sugar water with public dollars. And anti-hunger advocates and the soda industry say, no the food stamp program is an income supplement program, and people should be allowed to buy whatever they want.

Jacobson believes a ban would trim the above-average consumption of sweet drinks among poor people and reduce obesity.

Jacobson: There can be tremendous economic benefits through better nutrition. Cities can save money because taxpayers chip in for Medicaid.

But some advocates for the poor say soda would be just the beginning. How long before ice cream, chips and candy are banned as well? Ellen Vollinger, with the Food Research and Action Center, says poor families might abandon food stamps altogether.

Ellen Vollinger: When people are treated differently in a grocery line, it can make them feel a stigma and make them less likely to want to participate in the program.

In the past, the Agriculture Department has favored carrots over sticks to improve nutrition for poor families. It's experimenting with offering bonus food stamps for people who spend more on fresh fruits and vegetables.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.