Yale researchers estimate approximately $2 billion of food stamps are spent every year on sugary drinks that provide no nutritional content and contribute to obesity.

After analyzing supermarket purchasing data, researchers found not only that individuals using food stamps were more likely to buy sugary drinks, but also that food stamps paid for nearly three quarters of the sugar-sweetened beverages purchased in households on the nutrition assistance program. The finding is the latest in a series fueling the debate over whether government benefits should be spent on sugary drinks, said lead researcher Tatiana Andreyeva, Director of Economic Initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The paper appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

The study analyzed data from a large supermarket chain and concluded that about 58 percent of the beverages purchased in households receiving food stamps — also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — were sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda. Sugary drinks only accounted for 48 percent of beverages purchased in a comparison group of low-income households.

Andreyeva said the findings show the need for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers food stamps, to conduct a pilot study examining the effects of a ban on the use of SNAP benefits for the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages.

“We don’t allow using SNAP to buy alcohol or cigarettes, because we know there are health risks associated with consumption,” Andreyeva said. “We know the health risks — obesity, diabetes — related to excessive consumption [of sugar-sweetened beverages]. There is a good reason to basically treat sugar-sweetened beverages as we do alcohol.”

Mary Story, a professor in the Division of Epidemiology & Community Health at the University of Minnesota, said she believes states and cities should look carefully at the SNAP program to consider whether it could be altered to improve community diets and public health. Last August, the USDA rejected a New York City proposal banning the use of food stamps for the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages, citing, among other concerns, its wish to implement incentive-based solutions as opposed to restrictions.

Edward Cooney, Executive Director of the Congressional Hunger Center, said most anti-hunger advocates feel that banning SNAP purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages is the wrong approach to controlling sugary drink consumption.

“The underlying theory in the Rudd Center approach is that you can control behavior of the low-income population by creating a prohibition, and I don’t think that will work,” he said. “You are also not treating people as people. We think you are going to stigmatize low-income people in the store.”

Cooney said that 70 percent of households receiving SNAP benefits have access to other income that could be used to buy sugary drinks even if purchase with food stamps were banned. As opposed to a ban, he said that he supports a current USDA pilot that incentivizes purchasing fruits and vegetables. Michael Jacobson, Co-founder and Executive Director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he supports a hybrid program prohibiting the use of food stamps for purchasing sugary drinks while subsidizing the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

“If you spend two bucks on broccoli, you’d only pay a buck forty,” Jacobson said. “That would cost several billion dollars a year, but that’s something that SNAP beneficiaries actually favor.”

The study did not formally examine why SNAP households were more likely to purchase sugary drinks, but Andreyeva said that she knows that neither price nor access were factors, as diet and regular drinks cost about the same amount and SNAP households had the same beverages available to them as the low-income baseline did. She said she speculates that food advertising — which often targets young children — may play a role, as the only SNAP households considered in the study were those that had recently received government benefits for young children.

In March 2012, approximately 46.4 million Americans received SNAP benefits at an annualized cost of more than $86 billion for fiscal year 2012.