The Nanny State Diaries

     The media love when the government steps in to solve a problem. Journalists champion regulations on vehicle fuel standards, oil company profits, housing, food labeling and a host of other issues.


     But occasionally journalists will support a government regulation or ban that would be funny were it not so directly opposed to freedom and free markets. From foie gras to bacon-wrapped hot dogs and trans fats to flame retardants, news outlets have pushed state and local bans ranging from silly to downright dangerous.


     Meanwhile, Americans’ freedoms are being limited, businesses are being restricted and punished for meeting market demands and the government’s waistline expands. It’s funny, but it’s no laughing matter.


     The Business & Media Institute presents a list of the nine most business-hurting, freedom-hating and logic-bending regulations and bans in the United States (and one from across the pond), and a look at how the media embrace them or ignore their ill effects:



9) Chicago Gets Its Goose Cooked – Again


     As the city of Chicago struggled with the murder of children and the prevalence of drugs in 2006, its city council decided to attack something really important: duck livers.


      The city banned foie gras – a delicacy made from duck and goose liver – in April 2006 over concerns that it was inhumane to force-feed birds to fatten their livers. Alderman Joe Moore told the Associated Press at the time the city was “better for taking a stance against the cruelty of foie gras.”


     The ban was not without opponents, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. In a blinding flash of logic, Daley complained that “we have children getting killed by gang leaders and dope dealers. We have real issues here in this city. Let’s get some priorities.”


     “I think we have four restaurants that serve foie gras,” Daley told The Chicago Sun-Times April 27, the day the ban was passed.


     Local newspaper coverage from the two major publications in the city – The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times – was mixed. There was derision of the ban, including Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel, who interviewed city chefs who were upset by the ban in a May 4 column.


     An April 27 Tribune story labeled the ban “a more exclusive bit of lifestyle policing” than the city’s smoking ban, passed in December 2005.


     An April 28 Sun-Times editorial pondered the “slippery slope” argument against the ban. “Will the animal activists in City Council now move to outlaw veal, knowing how baby calves are prepared for their eventual presentation as a parmigiano or picante?” asked the editors. “Folks should be left to their own eating choices.”


     But other coverage gave credence to the government intervention. A March 10 Tribune news story compared the creation of foie gras to “horse slaughter.” An April 27 Sun-Times article published the claim from animal rights activists that treatment of the fowl was comparable to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.


     “Veterinarians and animal rights activists have described in graphic detail how geese and ducks suffer while being force-fed to create enlarged livers for the delicacy,” reporter Fran Spielman wrote. “They’ve made comparisons to the mistreatment of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.”


     The Sun-Times took the measure as a serious sign Daley was “losing his grip.” Amid other scandals, the paper’s April 30 report suggested the foie gras ban “was about Mayor Daley’s diminishing clout over a legislative body once viewed as his rubber stamp.”


     CBS reporter Bill Geist declared foie gras among the “biggest losers of 2006” in an end-of-year special on CBS “Sunday Morning.”


     ABC’s Jim Avila took the side of opponents of foie gras who argue the animals are “tortured” in March 29, 2007, “Nightline” report. He said activists “make it a point to show that what we eat doesn’t just arrive wrapped in supermarket plastic. This is how ducks are made ready for foie gras, literally overfed in the weeks before their slaughter so their livers become huge, tender and buttery.”


     But even ABC’s Jim Avila couldn’t ignore that the issue was “divisive.” He called it “the cutting edge of a new food police trend in America.”


     The city, ridiculed over the ban, overturned it in May 2008. Monica Davey, Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, said the ban “has been a source of embarrassment for the city and the repeal comes as residents have accused officials of trying to micromanage people’s lives.”

8) Smoking Bans Catch Fire across Nation


     Smoking bans have been traced back to Pope Urban VII, who banned tobacco of any kind from Catholic churches. Regulating or taxing the “sin” has gained popularity in the United States in the last decade.


     Twenty-eight states have laws on the books mandating 100-percent smoke-free workplaces and/or restaurants and/or bars, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation – that’s right, the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF).


     Five more states have passed smoking regulations that will go into effect by the end of 2009. The ANRF says almost 13,700 municipalities are covered by smoking restrictions.


     Opponents of government meddling in restaurant and bar owners’ business argue they should have the responsibility of deciding whether to allow smoking in their establishments – and customers should have the right to go to a smoking bar or a non-smoking bar depending on their preference. They argue legislative bans hurt business.


     “People that I’m competing with are continuing to (allow smoking) on a daily basis,” Ohio tavern owner Rick Sizemore said in September 2007. He told the Dayton, Ohio, Journal News his bar made $32,000 less in May 2007 than it had a year before, blaming the smoking ban.


     Proponents of the measures tout studies – such as a 2004 study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) – that purport to show business is not affected by the bans.


     “It really confirms that New York City is now a healthier place to work, eat and drink,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, commissioner of the DHMH, told The New York Times. The story noted there were “harsh realities” for bar owners, but maintained in its headlines that bars continued to “thrive” with the ban.


     The NBC “Nightly News” June 27, 2006 claimed that smoking bans were actually helping business. “In New York City, which banned smoking in 2002, tax receipts and employment in bars and restaurants jumped than 8 percent after the ban. Same in Providence, Rhode Island, and El Paso, Texas,” reporter Tom Costello said, without offering any input from ban opponents.


      On ABC’s “World News Tonight” on March 12, 2006, reporter Miguel Marquez said that efforts like an extremely restrictive ban in Calabasas, Calif., “are mostly about pressuring people to quit.” He even praised the ban’s effectiveness in achieving that goal: “While smoking rates have remained about the same nationwide, here in California, where anti-smoking laws are the toughest, lighting up has decreased 33 percent since 1988.”


     Marquez didn’t offer evidence to show that the smoking bans were to blame for the decrease in smoking. And he didn’t address concerns about the government using legislation to “pressure” citizens to make certain lifestyle decisions.


     Critics say the reports showing stable or even increased business for bars operating under mandatory smoking bans are too broad because they include restaurants, which are not as severely affected as bars. Opponents offer their own evidence that bans are bad for business.


     They’re also bad for freedom, according to civil libertarians. Reason magazine teamed up with actor Drew Carey, a self-described non-smoker, to protest California’s indoor smoking ban in 1998. “It should be up to each bar owner and patron to decide if they want to smoke or not,” Carey told CNN on April 1, 1998.


     An organization that represents the restaurant industry feels the same way. In a May 1998 release, the National Restaurant Association quotes Washington, D.C., bar owner Michael Sternberg criticizing the government intrusion.


     “If customers want to smoke, I should have the right to accommodate them,” Sternberg said. “If they don’t want to smoke, I’ll make the appropriate adjustments.” The Washington, D.C., city council approved a smoking ban for the nation’s capital in 2006.

7)      Trans Fats Rules Add Heft to Regulation from New York to California


     New York City leaders don’t want people smoking inside in the city, and they don’t want them getting fat either.


     A leader in the anti-smoking movement, New York City is also a high-profile player in the move to regulate away trans fats. While it wasn’t the first U.S. jurisdiction to ban the so-called “bad” fats, New York’s December 2006 ban was easily the most visible.


     Not to be outdone, California issued a statewide ban on trans fats in restaurants in July 2008. Violators there will face fines up to $1,000 for serving food cooked with trans fats.


     Supporters of the bans say they’re for the public good. Trans fats raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol, they say. The processed fats “make the arteries more rigid; cause major clogging of arteries; cause insulin resistance; cause or contribute to type 2 diabetes; and cause or contribute to other serious health problems,” according to the activist group Ban Trans Fats.


     Campaigns – including lawsuits – led by groups like Ban Trans Fats and the anti-business liberal activists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have strong-armed restaurants into getting rid of trans fats in spite of their benefits. (CSPI used to threaten restaurants with lawsuits if they refused to switch to trans fats.)


     While many of the silliest regulations receive little national attention, the broadcast networks have been virtually obsessed with trans fats. ABC, CBS and NBC have aired almost 50 stories on trans fat bans in the last two years.


     Only one segment – on the NBC “Nightly News” July 26 – noted that trans fat bans put more pressure on small restaurants. “[I]t will be harder for the mom and pop restaurants to comply with the ban” than it will be for larger chains, reporter Chris Jansing said.


     The New York Times reported the New York City ban on its front page and wondered if it would be “a model for other cities.” But George Mason University economist and Business & Media Institute adviser Don Boudreaux questioned what sort of model it would be.


     “Petty tyranny? Or perhaps for similar inspired bans on other voluntary activities with health risks,” he told ABC News. “Clerking in convenience stores? Walking in the rain?”


     Opponents of the bans argue that customers – not the government – should decide whether they want to eat food that is probably unhealthy. 


     One Los Angeles restaurant owner told the Los Angeles Times the ban represented the government “infringing too much on the rights for people to even eat what they want. Are they going to outlaw salt next because it causes hypertension?”


     Instead of following New York City’s lead, California could have looked within its own borders for trans fat inspiration. San Francisco created a voluntary anti-trans fat program early in 2008. The system allows restaurants owners to display a decal after a paid inspection confirms they cook without using the fats.

6) San Francisco Bags Plastic


     Plastic bags are a favorite target of environmentalists. The cheap bags usually given away for free at grocery and other stores make shopping convenient. But they’re also killing the planet, according to activists and the media.


     So in March 2007, San Francisco claimed the title of the first U.S. city to ban plastic shopping bags. The city’s Board of Supervisors decided plastic bags would be eliminated from supermarkets and chain stories within a year.


     The measure was aimed at reducing pollution. The city used an estimated 180 million plastic bags each year. The San Francisco Chronicle described them as “hard to recycle and easily blow into trees and waterways, where they are blamed for killing marine life. They also occupy much-needed landfill space.”


     Instead, stores will be allowed to offer biodegradable bags. But the eco-friendly totes are considered less reliable and twice as expensive – 5- to-10 cents per bag opposed to 2- to-3 cents for a regular bag, according to the Chronicle. They’re also made from corn, a renewable substitute for oil-based products with its own dubious history.


     The broadcast networks have been on a bit of a crusade against plastic bags. An April 2008 CBS “The Early Show” report highlighted Whole Foods Market’s decision to eliminate plastic bags from its stores.


     “Unless you’re living under a rock, you have to see that we have a problem,” Whole Foods regional president Michael Bescanson said. “There’s too many of us, we’re overburdening the system. The earth can’t handle it.”


     While they’ve ignored the San Francisco ban, the broadcast networks – namely NBC – have been against plastic bags since the beginning of 2008.


     NBC’s “Nightly News” praised mega-polluter China in a June 2008 report about the country’s ban on plastic bags. “[I]n China merchants are now banned from giving away ultra thin plastic bags,” Mark Mullen reported. “The idea: change shoppers’ habits in the world’s most populous country while giving the environment a break.”


     Mullen mentioned one downside to the ban. “The Hwa Chin Plastic Factory, China’s largest plastic bag maker, has closed, leaving 20,000 workers holding the bag, out of a job,” he said.


     In January 2008, NBC “Today” host Matt Lauer went “on the prowl for victims” in his own personal campaign against plastic bags. He pestered shoppers at a Manhattan grocery store over their use of plastic bags, and included only one sentence of response from the industry defending its environmental record.


     San Francisco’s southern sister, Los Angeles, announced its own ban on plastic bags in July. But L.A.’s ban is contingent on the state of California imposing a 25-cent fee on plastic bags. If the state artificially raises the cost of the bags, the city won’t ban them –according to the Los Angeles Times.


     The more expensive bags – either from taxes or materials – will be added on top of already high prices for groceries. Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl said the city had decided to nobly “bite the bullet and go with something that is more ecologically sensitive than what we’ve ever done before.”


     Unlike the networks, the editors of USA Today saw more problems beyond the higher cost. Paper bags, a likely alternative to plastic, “generate 70% more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is because four times as much energy is required to produce paper bags and 85 times as much energy is needed to recycle them.”


     USA Today proposed that “each individual can do more to help the environment by reusing whatever bags groceries distributes or buying a canvas sack to carry goods.” That theme of personal responsibility wasn’t typical of the coverage.

5) Fast Food Slowed With One-Year Delay


     Logic might indicate that someone looking out for the poor wouldn’t prevent low-cost food options in their neighborhoods. But Logic isn’t on the Los Angeles City Council.


     On July 29, Los Angeles decided to limit cheap food options for residents of it poorest neighborhoods by creating a one-year moratorium on new fast food restaurants. The city also offered “large financial incentives” for grocery stores and non-fast-food restaurants to open in the area.


     The New York Times summed up the measure nicely. “Los Angeles lawmakers are hoping they can legislate away the eating habits of [South Los Angeles resident Natasha] Jackson and thousands of her neighbors,” Jennifer Steinhauer reported August 8.


     Fast-food joints thrive in poor neighborhoods because they offer convenient and inexpensive foods. Outside legislators aimed to bring higher-end, and more expensive, food to the masses. But as L.A. resident Caroline Adeuole told The New York Times, “Not many people around here are ready to pay $5 for berries.”


     The fact that Los Angeles legislators simply denied what the food market in South Los Angeles was demanding hasn’t stopped New York City legislators from toying with similar bans.


     “People are literally being poisoned by their diets – L.A.’s idea deserves serious consideration as we look for holistic solutions to a serious problem,” New York City Council Member Eric Gioia told the New York Sun. “A moratorium may help stem the problem.”


     On CBS, “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric reported July 29 the step was intended “to promote healthier eating in a low-income section of town.” She noted restaurant industry criticism of the effort, but overstated the saturation of fast food outlets as “three quarters of the restaurants” in the affected areas. The Councilwoman who proposed the moratorium is quoted extensively saying fast food counts for less than half – 45 percent – of restaurants in the area.


     On the “Saturday Early Show” on CBS August 9, host Chris Wragge suggested the ban didn’t do enough to fight fat in Los Angeles because “there are still a number of existing fast-food restaurants.”


     Banning fast food may seem like a great idea to legislators and the food police. But normal citizens aren’t keen on the idea if “man on the street” interviews are any indication.


     “Banning fast food would be stupid,” Brooklyn resident Dennis Bouknight told the Sun. “They should just let people eat what they want to eat.”


      Natasha Jackson said to The New York Times she’d like to see more health food restaurants in South Los Angeles, but added, “I would probably just go to McDonald’s, because that’s what I know.”


     “I think it’s pretty ridiculous,” Los Angeles-based Community Advocates Vice President Joe Hicks said. “Limiting people’s food options is not really the way to go. Nor is it the role of government to tell people what they should or should not be eating”


     A July 30 Los Angeles Times article also pointed out another side effect of limiting new restaurants that could have a particularly hard-felt impact on poor residents: no new jobs.


     “Still, several fast-food workers told the council that the panel was ignoring the good things their franchises accomplish,” the Times reported. “The workers argued that fast-food establishments provide residents with job opportunities and, in recent years, nutritious menu options.”

4) So Much for the Hotdog with Everything


     Actor Drew Carey and the libertarians at shined the light on another Los Angeles nanny state ban that seems almost too ridiculous to be true: bacon-wrapped hotdogs. This infringement on personal responsibility and freedom was ignored by the mainstream media, including major newspaper in Los Angeles.


     Legitimate street vendors in L.A. can’t sell hot dogs wrapped in bacon unless they’ve invested thousands of dollars in high-tech food carts – even though proponents of the ban acknowledge the number of people sickened by the dog is vague and indefinable.


     Health officials told Carey the bacon was a “potentially hazardous food,” although the report didn’t say how many cases of food sickness cases were related to improper storage of raw bacon. Terrence Powell, chief environmental health specialist for the county, called the number “nebulous.”


     Still, police officers and health inspectors ticket and sometimes even arrest vendors for offering the bacon dogs. The penalty can reach $1,000 or six months in jail.


     The city’s efforts to keep them off the grills haven’t decreased market demand for the dogs. Instead, they’ve created a black market for bacon dogs in which nomadic vendors with no licenses or city approval roam the streets. They use cheap grills that can be abandoned if the vendors are caught by police.


     “They operate completely outside of codes and regulations, their particular rules and organizational methods a mystery to outsiders,” LA Weekly reported of black market vendors in a February 2008 article.


     The LA Weekly report also suggested some illegal vendors had gang connections, pushing the problem beyond unlicensed hot dog hawkers and into organized crime.


     Legitimate vendors can get around the regulations by purchasing a new cart. Carey’s reported noted they cost about $26,000 – five times more than regular carts.


3) Grilling Bad for Health, Also


     Thanks in part to some fear-mongering reports from the media on the “dangers” of outdoor grilling, numerous cities and towns have regulations aimed at putting an end to the summer pastime. Most target grilling on apartment and condominium balconies, but require little attention be paid to fire statistics.


     Washington state has earned national attention from media such as MSNBC for its grilling restrictions, but localities in at least 32 states have adopted some form of the “International Fire Code.” The code was created by the International Code Council, a membership association “dedicated to building safety and fire prevention.”


     Questions remain, however, as to just how dangerous outdoor grilling really is. The National Fire Protection Association reported 1,390 propane-grill-related fires per year between 2000 and 2004. The same years saw an average 23 deaths related to those fires. That’s less than one fire per day in a nation of more than 300 million people.


     Natural gas stoves caused almost twice as many deaths – 43 – and fires – 2,410. There were few if any calls to ban natural gas stoves.


     Other statistics suggested higher fire rates for grilling. The U.S. Fire Administration reported a yearly average of 6,500 grill fires, but less than 5 civilian deaths. The numbers also show that balcony and porch grilling accounted for 21 percent – or about 1,365 of the grill fires.


     Court, terrace and patio grilling and open area grilling accounted for higher percentages of the grill fires.


     The Fire Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, reported in March 2002 that personal responsibility – not increased regulation – was the solution to grilling accidents. “Many outdoor grill fires could be prevented through periodic maintenance and routine product inspection,” the report says. “Also, homeowners should be made aware of the need for vigilance while cooking on a grill.”


     But some have resisted the “international” standard for grilling safety. Tuscaloosa, Ala., for example, rejected the ban as “too much government.” Unfortunately for Tuscaloosans, however, a statewide regulation included the ban anyway.


     Broadcast networks have largely ignored bans on outdoor grilling, but have participated in drumming up fear over the “dangers” of grilling in spite of the less-than-overwhelming statistics.


     ABC’s “Good Morning America” June 29, 2007, mixed good tips on commonsense grilling safety with hyperbolic warnings and pictures about grill fires. “Each year, cookouts start more than 6,000 serious fires,” co-host Robin Roberts said.


     Correspondent Elizabeth Leamy showed pictures of fire-ravaged homes, but noted that at least one was fueled by natural gas.


     NBC’s “Today” show drummed up some fear on July 2, 2008, when it examined grills in its “Today Investigates Summer Hazards” series. Co-host Meredith Vieira warned about “dangerous grill fires and explosions. If you think it couldn’t happen to you, well, think again.”


     The media have previously taken grilling on for other reasons ranging from global warming to public health. Time magazine also criticized steaks and burgers for their impact on global warming. “[A] 16-oz. T-bone is like a Hummer on a plate,” the magazine said.

2) British Take Offense … to Baked Goods


     Some regulations and bans are aimed at protecting the public from health and safety risks or addressing environmental concerns. They may be overbearing and sometimes even ridiculous, but at least they’re well-intentioned.


     Others are just confusing. Across the pond, several districts in England have banned the famous hot cross buns from school cafeterias.


     But the schools aren’t worried about the carbohydrates in the bread, or the fat in butter smeared on top of the rolls, or even in all the sugar used to sweeten the treats. Instead, regulators were concerned the buns will offend Muslim and Jewish students because their designs feature the shape of a cross.


     In March 2003, London newspapers reported that “schools across Britain have been ordered by local authorities to abandon the ancient tradition of serving hot cross buns at Easter so as not to offend children of non-Christian faiths.”


     The regulations didn’t do away with special Easter observances, according to reports in the London Telegraph and the London Times. The holiday with decidedly religious undertones – after all it’s the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ – was still acknowledged, just without buns with cross shapes on top.


     U.S. broadcast networks ignored the controversy, but London publications offered outraged comment from Ann Widdecombe, a conservative member of parliament. She called the decisions “appalling and absurd.”


     Even the people who were supposedly being protected by the removal of the offensive buns were dumbfounded. “This is absolutely amazing,” a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain,” told the Telegraph. “At the moment, British Muslims are very concerned about the upcoming war with Iraq and are hardly going to be taken aback by a hot cross bun.”


     “I wish they would leave us alone,” the spokesman added. “We are quite capable of articulating our own concerns and if we find something offensive, we will say so. We do not need to rely on other people to do it for us … British Muslims have been quite happily eating and digesting hot cross buns for many years and I don’t think they are suddenly going to be offended.”  

1)      Washington, Maine even Ban Life-Saving Material


     Many of the silliest government bans and regulations target “merely” amount to government infringement on personal freedom and responsibility. But occasionally, citizens could actually be harmed by the interference.


     Such is the case with bans on deca-bromodiphenylether (decaBDE), a flame retardant chemical used in an array of household products – to protect both lives and property.


     Washington became the first state to ban decaBDE in April 2007. Maine passed its own ban a few months later. A handful of other states are considering bans.


     Supporters of the bans – including many in the media – commonly referred to decaBDE as “toxic.”


     The media have shown a tendency to jump on the chemical-banning bandwagon. A May 19, 2008, CBS “Evening News” report attacked decaBDE and similar fire resistant chemicals.


     The report allowed a spokesman from the left-wing Friends of the Earth to suggest that “kids are swimming in fire retardants.” Correspondent Wyatt Andrews’ report noted “the question is whether Deca’s ability to slow down fire is now outweighed by evidence it’s toxic to animals and showing up in humans.”


     “As producers and users of flame retardants, we are proud of the important role they play in saving lives,” Mark Buczek, chairman of the American Fire Safety Council, said in a press release. “Whether in furniture, mattresses, television sets or automobiles, flame retardants work silently to protect the public and fire fighters and reduce injuries and property damage from fires.”


     However, the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an industry group, said the chemical “does not meet criteria to be classified as a toxic substance.”


     “Overall, Deca-BDE is the flame retardant with the most scientific data supporting its compatibility in terms of human health, environmental profile and significant contribution to fire safety,” the group says on its Web site.


     BSEF Chairman Dr. Michael Spiegelstein said in an April 2007 statement that getting rid of decaBDE could put people at risk without any guarantee of a safer product. “The real risk in Washington is that the substitution of one product for another is not as simple as some people think,” he said. “Any substance used as an alternative to Deca will carry its own risks, and we may not even be aware just what those risks are because no alternative has been studied as extensively as Deca.”


     Beyond decaBDE, there was a larger movement to ban many chemicals used as flame retardants. Led by Greenpeace, environmental activists have targeted companies like Apple, which uses brominated flame retardants in its popular iPhone.


     But the industry argued the chemicals are important safety aspects of electronics that otherwise would be subject to dangerous overheating. “However, the substances Greenpeace seeks to eliminate are all approved for use, and provide critical performance and safety functions in a wide range of electronic products,” BSEF said.