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Best of Boston 2009

The nanny state

Why Boston's latest tobacco ban is a blow to liberty
By EDITORIAL  |  December 18, 2008


Assaults on liberty promoted by right-wing authoritarians, such as President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, may be difficult to combat, but they are easy to recognize. When news of this bully-boy administration's warrantless wiretapping was revealed by the New York Times, the public outcry was intense. It is hard to keep secrets in an open, democratic society.

Curbing progressive-minded authoritarians operating on the local level is much more difficult. It's hard to demonize the well-meaning busybodies next door. They voted for Barack Obama, may shop at Whole Foods or the co-op, and are probably as green as their budgets allow. Their fetish for jackboots, however, is their own guilty pleasure.

The progressive authoritarians were active in Los Angeles this summer, enacting a one-year moratorium on construction of fast-food restaurants in that city's poor neighborhoods, where obesity is disproportionately more of a problem than in prosperous precincts.

It is a clever idea: slim down the poor folks by applying the principals of apartheid. No fast food for them — black- and brown-skinned residents, many of whom speak Spanish — but plenty for white people. Caucasians, apparently, can be relied upon to make "smarter" dietary choices. The well-meaning members of the LA City Council who unanimously passed this measure would be aghast at this characterization. But that's the practical result. Restrict freedom of choice among the poor in the hopes that they might get healthier.

Just as harebrained, but less likely to go anywhere, is the proposal by New York Governor David Patterson to tax soft drinks with sugar at a higher rate than sugar-free beverages. Sugar bad; chemical additives good. Brilliant! Too bad for Paterson that so many above the poverty line enjoy their sugar habit.

Public health is fast becoming for so-called progressives what terrorism is for conservatives: a reason to restrict liberty in the name of some greater good. Put a Classic Coke in Ronald McDonald's hand and he's the new Osama bin Laden.

With its just-adopted ban on the sale of tobacco on college campuses and in pharmacies, Boston has become a poster child for the Nanny States of America. City Hall knows best. And if you disagree, hang a sign around your neck that reads BAD PERSON, then go stand in the corner. Better yet, revive the stocks and pillories our puritan forefathers once used to publicly shame wrongdoers. Wonder if Paula Johnson, MD, PhD, and the chair of Boston's Public Health Commission, has her own secret agenda? Mother Johnson, along with the rest of the commission, has just enacted some of the nation's most restrictive tobacco ordinances.

College students, of course, have long been treated like children. They are subject to proto-fascist speech codes governing what can and cannot be said. (Do they read George Orwell?) Older graduate students, faculty, and staff are subject to those too. In the womb of the campus, all are kiddies today, subject to regulation by Big Nanny.

Nannies have had little impact on curbing underage drinking, so we suspect they'll be just as unsuccessful in discouraging undergraduate smoking. Maybe the Public Health Commission should turn its attention to sexual intercourse. It could team up with administrators and require students to fill out forms before, well, fucking. This way college authorities could make sure the deed — or deeds — are consensual. And the Public Health Commission could promote safe sex by mandating the absolute use of condoms and dental dams. Breakage and slippage might pose problems. But trust in the nannies; they are an imaginative lot.

Now that tobacco has been banished from health-care chain stores and the few remaining neighborhood apothecaries, why not borrow a page from Governor Patterson's master plan and go after candy? Don't laugh. Mayor Thomas Menino tried to curb T-shirt sales in the hopes of stemming violence by gunfire — an unassailable goal. (Eradicating gun violence, that is, not T-shirts.) Is a link between tooth decay and socially destructive behavior far away? Society already knows that unemployment, low educational horizons, and broken homes contribute to urban problems. Maybe logo-free T-shirts and good teeth are the answer.

Mother Johnson's campaign to stamp out smoking is admirable in its blindness to class division. Under the guise of providing greater protection of workers from exposure to the evils of secondhand smoke, the great outdoors has now become the new battleground in the war on smoking. Owners who since Boston's indoor-smoking ban was levied in 2003 — just after many establishments installed expensive ventilation systems to mitigate the effects of second-hand smoke, and were imaginative enough to create outdoor zones for patrons — once again see their investment go up in smoke, as those patios are now outlawed. Adam Smith is no match for the nannies. Smoking is now banned from bar and restaurant loading docks, too. It is not an anti-teamster move. Rather, it is aimed at all of those morally depraved people who take a break from their wine, beer, and cocktails to go out the back door for a smoke. The loading-dock ban is aimed at blue-collar establishments without upscale patios.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Adam Smith, Barack Obama, Beverages,  More more >
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