Bloomberg bans again!

Over at the Examiner I take a look at Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to make life worse for smokers, a ban in parks and beaches:

It’s no wonder that some non-smoking residents support the ban. They have nothing to lose and they’ve been hit with fear-mongering propaganda for years, such as Action on Smoking and Health’s dire warning that “If you can smell it, it could be killing you,”or even worse, uncritical reports about “thirdhand smoke,” the residue left behind on room surfaces when tobacco is lit. So firmly has the toxicity of tobacco smoke been in implanted in the public’s mind that activists no longer feel the need to demonstrate that it causes harm; the mere ability to detect its traces with fancy lab equipment is enough to raise a panic.

Whole thing here.


A is for adult, which is what we’ll never be

New York City’s paternalist in chief, Michael Bloomberg, has announced that his city will now require restaurants to prominently post their safety inspection grades. Mary Cheh has introduced a similar bill in DC. On the surface it seems like a good idea. Here’s a writer at Slashfood, for example, a site not exactly known for its critical thinking about regulation:

So will this work? When Los Angeles County enacted the letter grading system back in 1998, only 40 percent of its restaurants received “A” grades. By 2006, 83 percent were meeting the standard. I have faith — it will take some time, but restaurants and consumers alike will benefit.

LA’s results are likely true, but it confuses the measurement with what we’re trying to measure. What we should care about is actual food safety, not the letter grades restaurants are receiving. If the grades aren’t highly correlated with preventing customers from getting sick, then restaurants are just wasting time and money to comply with arcane regulations and to create the illusion of safety.

Jessica at Crispy on the Outside looked up some her favorite places:

I actually read the health department reports and find that most of my favorite awesome restaurants have some infraction, usually that there is no “food manager” at the restaurant when the food police show up, which would get them a “C”.

Is having a “food manager” on duty during all business hours a cost effective way to improve outcomes? Maybe, maybe not. We do know that it drives up expenses for restaurants and training time for employees. Before we give restaurants a scarlet letter for violating this rule, we might want to find out if it actually accomplishes anything. And that’s just one rule of many.

Marc Fisher notes at the Post that proposed system relies too heavily on city inspectors:

[…] a fair and useful system would depend more on transparency than on the blunt instrument of letter grades that may not represent anything more than the misdeeds of a single vindictive, corrupt or incompetent inspector. Is there a D.C. resident who cannot imagine that their city might be home to such an inspector?

Add bribes to the higher costs of business a letter grade system might impose on DC restaurants.

The irony of this regulation and related laws about posting nutritional data is that they’re coming at a time when information technology makes them less necessary than ever. We’re not far off from the time when GPS-enabled internet phones will tell you everything you’d like to know about a restaurant as you pause in front of its window. Cities should focus on making their inspection data readily available electronically; the usefulness, if any, of current measures is limited to a few years before technology will render it obsolete.

Lastly, the nannies behind this law have no sense of aesthetics. I’ve eaten at dives and I’ve eaten at high-end establishments. When I went for banh mi in the Virginia suburbs and watched my friend flick a roach of his wrist while we waited for our sandwiches, I knew what I was getting into. (Our lunch was delicious, by the way.) Similarly, when I go out for an expensive dinner at a nice restaurant, I trust the chef not to send me home sick. Pasting a tacky city inspection certificate in the window just detracts from the experience.


Cart watch: NYC edition

You can lead a fat guy to a fruit cart, but can you make him eat? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is betting that he can. The city is issuing permits for new food carts that will only be permitted to sell fruits and vegetables:

The carts, which are expected to start appearing on the streets later this summer, are restricted to low-income areas that have the fewest sources of fresh produce in the city.

Coming in the wake of the city’s indoor smoking ban, a campaign to get restaurants to eliminate the use of trans-fats, and a requirement that menus list calories, the Green Carts project is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest public-health crusade.

This isn’t a terrible idea, but before lamenting the lack of fruit available in NYC food carts it’s worth noting that the city has been restricting the supply of new permits since the 1970s. If the city had been more willing to open the cart market to competition, it might see more variety in what gets sold (as has recently happened here in DC). Strict regulations and frequent fines also drive up the costs of doing business, possibly pushing fruit carts off the market.

Fruit carts have the advantage of being much cheaper to purchase: $1,000 compared to $15-30,000 for carts designed to process prepared food or coffee, according to this fascinating article from New York magazine. The fact that vendors aren’t buying them suggests that on-the-go diners would rather have stuff like pretzels, hot dogs, and kebabs, thank you very much.

There is also the fear that the subsidized fruit carts will hurt the revenues of grocers. If they drive grocers out of business, they might even lessen access to produce in some neighborhoods.

In short, subsidizing green carts might marginally drive up fruit and vegetable consumption, but it’s silly for the city to be playing favorites. Freeing the cart market would likely do much more to encourage variety and deliver the products people actually want.

[Via Coldmud.]