March 23 (Bloomberg) -- The Florida Legislature just spent a couple of weeks debating a reasonable question: Why should U.S. taxpayers pay for the junk food people buy with food stamps?

A bill that would have imposed limits on purchases of soft drinks, potato chips and some other foods was drafted, but died amid complaints by anti-hunger groups and industry lobbyists. Similar efforts in other states have also failed, mainly on the same objections: Constraints on food stamp use would amount to government interference in personal choice and stigmatize recipients. The rules also would be too complicated to carry out.

These claims are weak and misleading, and undermine the program at a time when its legitimacy is being attacked for different reasons. House Republicans this week offered a budget proposal that would make painful cuts to food stamps. This follows on a primary season in which Newt Gingrich and other Republicans made “food stamp president” a common refrain.

The food stamp program, formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, deserves better. It is also in need of reform to strengthen its effectiveness by making the program a vehicle for promoting healthy eating.

Threat of Obesity

When the Food Stamp Act was adopted in 1964, hunger was a deep problem. Today, the far bigger public health threat is obesity and overconsumption of foods linked to chronic diseases -- such as diabetes -- that contribute to escalating medical costs. In low-income families, overweight children outnumber those considered underweight by 7-to-1.

Food stamp recipients have never had the right to use the benefits however they please. They can’t buy cigarettes and alcohol with food stamps, pet food, or household products such as detergent. Most prepared hot meals aren’t covered either.

In the initial draft of the food stamp law, Congress had the good sense to include a ban on soft drinks. The idea was dropped because it was deemed too difficult to administer.

But banning drinks sweetened with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, such as Coca-Cola or Gatorade, is an idea worth revisiting. The program pays for an estimated 20 million servings of these beverages a day at a cost to taxpayers of $4 billion a year.

In 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (majority owner of Bloomberg News’s parent company) sought U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for a two-year test ban on sweetened drinks in New York City. The department declined, saying that retailers weren’t equipped to deal with a prohibition and that it was too hard to decide which products to exclude.

Those concerns lack merit. Almost every retail item has a Universal Product Code. Most retailers, from Wal-Mart to neighborhood convenience stores, are equipped with bar-code scanners that track product sales. These systems can be programmed to monitor food-stamp purchases.

In denying New York’s request, the Agriculture Department also raised one objection that helped kill the bill in Florida: Food stamp users might feel stigmatized if they couldn’t buy the same products as everyone else.

This is a flimsy argument. Almost all food stamp beneficiaries today make purchases with a card that looks much like a debit or credit card, not a booklet of stamps. It’s not obvious to others standing in the checkout line which products are bought with food stamps and which are paid for with the customer’s own money. Once everything is rung up on the register, the customer simply pays the balance due on the exempt items. And if other shoppers can tell what products are purchased with food stamps, won’t it be a relief to them to see that their tax dollars aren’t going for junk?

Status Quo

The Agriculture Department offers the following rationale for the status quo: There are more than 300,000 food products in the U.S., with 12,000 new ones introduced each year. Deciding which to exclude would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Instead, the department prefers experiments to promote better nutrition, such as the Massachusetts pilot program that gives food stamp users increased benefits for purchases of fruits and vegetables. This is fine in theory. The trouble is that many nutritionists think diets are improved when unhealthy foods are eliminated, not when consumption of healthier foods increases. The Massachusetts experiment does nothing to address that point or the larger national debate about food stamps’ role in the obesity epidemic.

What’s perplexing is the department’s willingness to ban junk food in a different program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which serves more than 9 million new and expectant mothers and their children. The offerings are limited: canned fish, milk, cheese, eggs, whole-wheat bread, fruit, peanut butter, vegetables, tofu, unsweetened juice, infant formula and medicines.

With modifications to allow purchases of meat, chicken and fresh fish, that plan could serve as a template for reforming the food stamp program into one that is able to offer better nutrition -- and to withstand political attack.

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