NEW YORK, N.Y. — Citing obesity concerns, New York City officials are proposing excluding sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of products available for those who receive assistance through the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The proposal would still keep the amount of the benefit recipients receive under the program the same, but recipients would not be able to buy sugar-sweetened beverages with the assistance for two years. The proposal defines sugar-sweetened beverages as those having more than 10 calories per 8 ounces, except fruit juices without added sugar, milk products and milk substitutes.

“The use of food stamp benefits to support the purchase of sugar sweetened drinks not only contradicts the intent of this vital program, but it also subsidizes a serious public health epidemic,” said Governor David Paterson. “We are helping record numbers of low-income families put food on the table, and we are very proud of that accomplishment. But there is clear evidence that low-income individuals have higher rates of obesity and are more at risk of becoming obese than other groups. The serious chronic illnesses related to obesity — diabetes, cancer and heart disease — take a toll on our family, friends and neighbors, but also carry a cost that we all bear, as nearly half of the $147 billion spent nationally on treatment per year is paid by Medicaid and Medicare.”

The proposal must be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, and if approved the city will conduct a public information campaign to make sure retailers and benefit recipients are notified of the policy. There will also be a study conducted to see if the effort results in the purchase of fewer sugar-sweetened drinks and helps in preventing negative health effects.

“In spite of great gains we’ve made over the past eight years in making our communities healthier, there are two areas where we’re losing ground — obesity and diabetes,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We know there is no quick fix to address these issues. That’s why New York City has already implemented a series of programs that bring fresh fruits and vegetables to communities that need them and set nutrition standards for all meals and snacks the city provides. We have to continue developing new strategies and initiatives to complement what has already been done, and that’s why we are looking to eliminate sugary beverages from allowable food stamp purchases. This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment.”

The American Beverage Association has taken issue with the proposal, noting that there is nothing unique about the calories in sugar-sweetened beverages – which include flavored waters, sports drinks, juice drinks and teas – to justify singling them out for elimination from eligible purchases in the Food Stamps program in New York City.

“If we want to reduce obesity in this country, we need to look at comprehensive solutions that address balancing calories in with calories out,” the association said in a statement. “After all, we know that is the key to maintaining a healthy weight.

“Importantly, the beverage industry has taken and continues to take bold action to help address the complex public health issue of obesity. The industry has changed the beverage landscape for children and adolescents. With our School Beverage Guidelines, beverage companies have removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools across the country and replaced them with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage choices. As a result of this initiative, calories available from beverages in schools have been cut by 88%.”