Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Think Of It As Evolution In Action, Mr. Mayor

Retailers were poised, return crates at the ready. Movie theatres had already started recycling. Bodegas held clearance sales. Things were in place to execute Mayor Mike Bloomberg's most obnoxious public health initiative since dismantling the oldest government public health program in the nation's history.

But in a last-minute ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling dismissed the law, explaining that the New York City's Board of Health lacked the jurisdiction to enforce it. He further went on to find that the rule was "arbitrary and capricious" -- that it did not accomplish what it set out to do. Or, as HuffPost Live host (and resident legal expert) Mike Sacks put it, "law-speak for too stupid to be legal."

Tingling made clear that the city's Board of Health was only meant to intervene "when the City is facing eminent danger due to disease," he wrote in the decision. "That has not been demonstrated herein."

Here's the thing: Mayor Mike is not wrong. There is a clear threat from obesity in this country, and even in New York, famed for its gyms and incidental commitment to health -- it's hard to find a parking space even in the outer boroughs now, so everyone walks anyway -- there are significant reasons to sound an alarm for obesity and how it impacts the city.

Here's the other thing: he's not right, either. And he need only look at the other health issue that the city has dealt with, properly and deliberately: smoking.

The city's war on smokers began under Ed Koch in 1988, when smoking in public restrooms and taxis was banned. Notice that this was decades after the Surgeon General's warning was placed on cigarettes cartons and packs, and almost half a century since the link between smoking and cancer was established.

People fussed, but the ban was later extended to other indoor venues, including offices. As people became accustomed to fresher air, they began to hop on board the bandwagon. The death blow for most smoking in the city was when it was banned from bars -- mostly to protect bartenders and wait staff -- in 2002. Prior to that, you couldn't walk into a pub without walking into a wall of smoke and frankly, it smelled like high holy hell. We all wondered how we put up with that in the first place.

Ironically, business in bars boomed as people who previously had stayed away for the smell flocked to drink and eat out.

In 2011, the city passed an ordinance banning smoking from public parks and beaches, meaning that about the only place one could smoke any longer was on a sidewalk or in your apartment, but even there, landlords began to catch wise to the profit to be made if they banned smoking in their buildings. Significantly lower insurance premiums meant an instant "rent hike" without bothering the tenants.

Mayor Bloomberg, for reasons that remain really unclear to me, decided to circumvent this evolutionary process and leap right to the ban. Was it vanity, the hubris to show that he had this entire city on a string? Was it a legacy that he wanted to leave behind, showing how "concerned" he was for the poor? Was it a genuine passion that he saw something that needed to be fixed and figured he was the one to do it? Who can say?
Yes, obesity is a real problem and yes, large soda containers are disproporionately purchased by the poor, meaning that obesity among poor and poor children especially is a critical problem. Progressives should be front and center on this issue.
But this is not an irreversible crisis, and my drinking a 32oz soda doesn't directly affect your health as far as anyone knows. We should be at the education stage of this issue, not the legislative stage. It needs to evolve.