Food companies have embraced a controversial tactic in their quest to sell more soda, a new study says: timing advertisements for sugary drinks to the days when states distribute food-stamp benefits.
On any given day, grocery shoppers are likely to see soda displays in stores, researchers found.
But they are two to four times as likely to come across them when food stamps go out.
The study, which relied on 2011 data from the New York State Department of Health and which will appear later this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is the latest to suggest there’s more to America’s nutrition gap than a lack of healthy choices or health education.
Low-income Americans drink far more soda than their wealthier neighbors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, has recently come under fire for the amount federal benefits recipients spend on sugary beverages, with some critics calling on the federal government to ban soda purchases.
But this study demonstrates those trends are not entirely the fault of low-income shoppers, who are disproportionately bombarded by junk-food ads, said Alyssa Moran, the lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of health and social policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“People will argue that individuals are ultimately responsible for their choices, but we know that the environment in which we make choices matters,” Moran said. “This study is another example of industry targeting sugary beverage marketing toward lower income families.”
This study is the first to tie food advertising to SNAP distribution patterns. Because food-stamp benefits are dispersed in a lump sum each month, and because many recipients spend those funds within a week of receiving them, stores frequently see higher sales and traffic in the days after benefits get reloaded.
That cycle started Moran and several colleagues wondering whether food companies tried to take advantage of the monthly food-stamp boom. To answer that question, they analyzed a 2011 census of beverage advertising in more than 600 New York state grocery stores by the state Department of Health.
They found that stores were 1.88 times as likely to have soda displays on the first through ninth of the month, when food stamps are distributed in New York.
That figure falls to zero in neighborhoods with few SNAP recipients, and rises to 4.35 in neighborhoods with large numbers of SNAP shoppers.
“I’ve worked with a lot of ... retailers, and I know that retailers are very attuned to when households receive benefits,” Moran said. “When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: If you operate in a state where everyone receives benefits on the same day, there’s a huge financial incentive on that day to heavily market popular items.”
Moran cautions that her data are only from New York and that patterns may differ in other states. She also can’t say whether grocery stores or soda producers are to blame.
Food companies frequently pay stores to place ads or shelve their products in high-visibility locations, so it’s impossible to say who is responsible for the ads researchers saw during store visits. Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, two of the three largest soda producers in the United States, both said they did not consider SNAP when creating their marketing plans. In a statement, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers, also disputed the notion that grocery stores target ads to SNAP recipients.
“Our members have long advocated that there be no distinction made between SNAP customers and traditional customers,” said Heather Garlich, a spokeswoman for the group. “To suggest they would single out a segment of shoppers does not align with our philosophy regarding SNAP.”
The American Beverage Association trade group said Moran’s data were seven years old and that the industry has taken numerous steps to encourage consumers to drink less sugar since then.