Is Nanny State going too far?
A couple months ago I attended a wedding in Seattle where one of the guests posed a question about the voters of upstate New York: Do they care about the New York City mayor’s race?
In general, I’m reluctant to make sweeping statements about what the voters of upstate New York might or might not care about. But after a moment’s thought, I concluded that many upstate voters do take an interest in New York City politics.
My theory — and, no, I don’t have any research to back this up — is that whenever New York City politicians, such as outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, start to talk about banning food, restricting smoking or pushing other measures that infringe upon people’s rights to buy or consume whatever they want, the entire state takes notice. Nothing gets people riled up quite like a perceived attack on personal freedom.
However, some bans are more controversial than others.
When Bloomberg proposed barring people from buying sugary drinks that are larger than 16 ounces, people were outraged. But last week, when the federal government announced a ban on trans fat, nobody really seemed to care. Perhaps this is because soda is tasty and refreshing — I happen to love soda, especially Coke — while trans fat just sounds gross. Does anybody really want trans fat in their food? Not surprisingly, New York City was at the forefront of the war on trans fat, banning it way back in 2006.
The public also seems less concerned about bans on certain wasteful products, such as plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. On Tuesday, Albany County voted to prohibit chain restaurants from selling takeout food and drink in Styrofoam, joining about 100 cities and towns throughout the country.
Though some in Albany spoke against the ban, saying it would be a burden for businesses, many speakers lauded the idea, saying Styrofoam is a pollutant and potential health hazard; Styrofoam contains styrene, which is listed as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
“Twenty-five percent of our landfill is Styrofoam,” Albany County Legislator Doug Bullock, who sponsored the anti-Styrofoam legislation, told me. “It doesn’t decompose. It’s not biodegradable.”
Banning Styrofoam sounds perfectly fine to me.
I don’t have any great attachment or loyalty to Styrofoam, which is clearly bad for the earth and can easily be replaced. I don’t feel any less free because the coffee I buy at McDonald’s will soon come in a biodegradable cup. But Styrofoam (and trans fat) are easy targets. As with any story of this type, I wonder where the line should be drawn: Plenty of foods and products are unhealthy and bad for the environment. Is it really the government’s place to step in and protect us from all of them? I’m still working out the answer to this question.
I’ve never liked being told what to do, and when someone as irritating as Michael Bloomberg tells me I can’t drink as much soda as I’d like because some people are obese, well, I get annoyed. But once I’ve had time to research the topic, my opinion tends to evolve.
For instance, take the smoking ban.
I’ve never been a smoker, and I don’t like being exposed to cigarette smoke. But when the smoking ban was first proposed, I wasn’t exactly in favor of it. Perhaps I was just under the influence of my smoker friends, who hated the idea. In any case, I remember asking questions such as “Do people really go to bars to be healthy?” and “Smoking is a legal activity. Should it really be banned from virtually all indoor locations?”
I started singing a different tune after the ban went into effect.
Turns out, I like clean air. And I don’t like having my clothes smell like cigarettes. Why should I be forced to breathe in filthy cigarette smoke whenever I go out? Well, I shouldn’t be. Which is why the smoking ban makes sense. A decade after the ban went into effect, I wonder why I ever complained about it. And most of my friends have quit smoking.
Perhaps someday I’ll undergo a similar conversion on the issue of restricting soda intake. And while I’m leery of outright bans or limits on soda, I am in favor of nudging consumers in the direction of drinking less of it. I’ve cut back on my soda consumption, and it’s been beneficial. And I can now see that my old habit of drinking soda in the morning was completely disgusting.
What’s clear is that debates over whether we’re living in a Nanny State are far from over.
With obesity an ongoing problem, expect more proposals aimed at curbing sugar and salt consumption. And more municipalities are looking at ways to reduce their environmental impact. Earlier this fall, The Gazette reported on an effort to ban disposable plastic bags in stores and markets in Saratoga Springs. And interest in banning Styrofoam appears to be gaining steam throughout the country.
Albany County might be among the first to do so in New York, but I doubt it will be the last.