Monday, September 17, 2012

Welcome to the Nanny State: A Post-Soda Ban Look At New York City's Biggest Crackdowns

Posted By on Mon, Sep 17, 2012 at 11:30 AM


Last week marked a major victory for Mayor Bloomberg, with the New York City Board of Health unanimously voting in favor of his "soda ban" on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces.

Six out of ten New Yorkers may have thought it was a bad idea according to polls, but nuisances like "public opinion" (and intense lobbying from the soda industry) haven't gotten in the way of the initiative, which will affect restaurants, food carts and movie theaters.

Whether you agree, disagree, or just don't care about this new obesity-fighting measure, it represents a long history of semi-draconian crackdowns used to keep this city in line, starting with the mid-19th century creation of a city-wide board of health, and subsequent banning of "free-ranging hogs and goats" on city streets.

So, you know, sometimes it's really worked out for the best! And sometimes not so much. Grab a giant soda while you can, and click through for some of our city's best (and worst) big-government moments.



If you think the city is tightening the reigns on wayward bikes now, just be grateful you weren't around in "olden times."

When these two-wheeled demon racers first hit the scene in the late 19th century, they caused quite a stir. As one person at an 1881 hearing to determine whether or not to allow bikes in Central Park put it, “I consider the bicycle to be the most dangerous thing to life ever invented. The gentlest of horses are afraid of it.”

In response to the booming trend the Parks Department issued a series of regulations in 1885, requiring "wheelmen" to register and wear a badge in order to ride in city parks and to "carry lighted lamps after sundown."

The report noted, "the use of the bicycle and tricycle for recreation and exercise has considerably increased in Brooklyn," and in order to adjust accordingly officials worked closely popular bicycle clubs including the Long Island Wheelmen, Kings County Wheelmen, Brooklyn Bicycle Club, and Bedford Cycling Club.

It would appear that not much has changed.

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This is easily the biggest, most famous, and least successful of our our city's attempts to police the lives of its residents, so we'll keep it short. In accordance with the rest of the country, booze was illegal in New York from 1920 until it was voted down eight-to-one 1933. In the interim, organized crime skyrocketed, 100,000 speakeasies popped up to meet demand, and fedora-wearing dweebs of the future were given a cultural moment to fetishize.

A failure all-around.


Rockefeller Drug Laws

In the 1960s and early 1970s, officials were floundering in their attempts to combat a major uptick in heroin use, and after more rehabilitation-oriented measures failed, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted the so-called "Rockefeller Drug Laws" in 1973. The minimum sentence for possession of four ounces of narcotics was set at 15 years, comparable to the standard one for second-degree murder. Some of the harshest drug laws the nation had ever seen, the Rockefeller policies set the tone for the war on drugs nation-wide, and to many became emblematic of its numerous failings.

The laws were amended in 1979 to lower the penalty for marijuana possession, but were still criticized for their sweeping, overly harsh treatment of low-level and non-violent offenses, leading to grossly disproportionate incarceration of black and latino citizens, as well as inefficient and overcrowded prisons.

In 2004 George Pataki eased the sentences slightly with the Drug Law Reform Act, and in 2009 David Paterson signed an official reform of the Rockefeller policies, giving judges the option of sending offenders to treatment rather than a harsh and automatic prison sentence. "We are reforming these laws to treat those who suffer from addiction and to punish those who profit from it," Paterson said at the time.


Subway Graffiti

To a lot of people, the graffiti that covered much of the subway in the 70s and 80s came to symbolize everything that was decrepit and lawless about the city during those years. In the early days of the so-called "Fixing Broken Windows" policy, which entailed making small but highly visible civic improvements, the city focused intensely on cleaning up the tagged trains as a morale-boosting measure. Police presence on the transit system was increased and train yards were protected with harsh new measures like razor wire and guard dogs. By and large it worked, and the last graffitied train supposedly taken out of service in 1989.

As we all know, graffiti culture and street art quietly disappeared thereafter, and were never seen or heard from again.

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Smoking in Bars

When New York first banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 2003 (amid a national trend originating in California), most people figured the regulations would be pretty easy to blow off. As it turned out, the ban was easy and effective to enforce with heavy fines, and New York smokers went down without much of a fight.

The ban did come with an unexpected silver lining, though (aside from the obvious lowered risk of lung cancer): in having to step outside, smokers and fake-smokers alike were inadvertently given one of the best excuses modern society has ever seen to get someone hot to come outside with you.

The anti-smoking tide is still rising, however, with sky-high taxes, as well as more recent bans on smoking in parks and on public beaches that many have criticized as both an excuse for racial profiling and an excessive tactic to exile smokers from every corner of society. The whole thing has started to feel like a bit much.


Four Loko

No substance abuse trend has burned brighter and died faster than Four Loko, which had its brief, eventful zenith in 2010.

Almost immediately after officials caught on to the drink, which held roughly the equivalent of six beers and a cup of coffee in a single $3 can, they made moves to take it off the shelves, and in November 2010 sale of original-formula Loko was banned by the state. Senator Schumer called the new laws "a giant step forward in keeping our kids safe from these toxic and dangerous brews."

This put a sharp end to the days when, say, a penniless young writer could blithely chug an entire can of a weekend night in lieu of slower, more expensive options. A toothless caffeine-free version of the drink is still widely available, but really, what's the point? It's not like anybody was drinking it for the taste.


Baby Formula

Earlier this month, the Bloomberg administration rolled out the grossly-titled Latch On NYC initiative, asking hospitals to "voluntarily sign on to support a mother’s choice to breastfeed and limit the promotion of infant formula in their facilities which can interfere with that decision."

Theoretically this just meant ending the practice of keeping promotional formula in hospital rooms and promoting (already widely known) facts about the health benefits of breast milk through aggressive advertising. In practice, it's sparked widespread outrage among women of all political affiliations, who cite the already excessive social pressure to breastfeed at all costs, along with the well-documented efficacy of baby formula.

For now, it doesn't seem that the policy has changed anything too radically, but if your website requires an entire section dedicated to dispelling "myths," (such as the assumption that mothers seeking formula will require written consent similar to that required for drugs), something has gone off the rails.


Energy Drinks?

While nothing has come of it yet, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's recent decision to probe the ingredients and marketing of Monster, AMP, and 5-Hour Energy — which he believes are being "marketed to teenagers as a diet supplement" with misleading reports of their actual sugar and caffeine content — has the over-caffeinated among us concerned that these chemical-laden life savers will soon be ripped from our shaking hands.

If the ultra-wealthy soda industry couldn't save their product, is there any hope for their much shoddier friends in the energy drink business?

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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About The Author

Virginia K. Smith

Virginia K. Smith

Virginia K. Smith is the Assistant Editor at The L Magazine and a Bushwick resident. Her profile picture was taken at Summerscreen, because she is a real team player.

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