Change, whether good or bad, supported or maligned, always begins the same way: with one person, one idea, and one moment of courage. Many people find change suspect because the outcome is unknown; there are too many unforeseeable consequences. They naysay new ideas about old ways of thinking, not realizing how remiss we’d be without the positive progress in equality, health, and the environment that change makes possible. They forget that just years ago, secondhand smoke in offices, restaurants, and other crowded areas was just an accepted aspect of life. But thanks to one person—or, in this case, one city—San Luis Obispo, California—the majority of indoor public spaces are smoke-free, and we’re much healthier for it.
Cities effect change through bans, setting precedents that are sometimes revolutionary and always controversial. Over the past few years, a number of U.S. cities have gone the way of San Luis Obispo: initiating bans that are aren’t always popular with everyone but have the power to change things for the better.
1. Santa Clara, California: No Happy Meal Toys
In April 2010, Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors decided to prohibit fast-food restaurants to add toys or other promotional items to kids’ meals. The ban applies only to eateries in certain areas of the county, and only to kids’ meals that have significantly high calories, sodium, fat, and sugar. Fast-food establishments have ninety days to give up the toys or develop more nutritionally sound menu choices for kids. Those supporting the ban feel that offering toys with fast-food meals rewards kids for eating McDonald’s, Burger King, and so on. It lessens the incentive for fast food, which could help curb the increasingly growing rates of childhood obesity in this country.
2. San Francisco, California: No City Money for Bottled Water, No Plastic Bags
San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom declared in 2007 that no more of the city’s money would go toward bottled water (as in, buying it for government offices or city functions). Other cities, like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Salt Lake City, followed suit and cut local-government spending on bottled water. Some went further—like Chicago, which tacked on a five-cent tax to every bottle of water, and Concord, Massachusetts, which banned the sale of any bottled water from within its borders starting in January 2011. The anti–bottled water legislation in these two cities is much more extreme, and therefore much more disputed. Banning or reducing bottled water at the government level first seems like a more popular, and therefore possibly more effective, first step.
San Francisco put forth another groundbreaking law in 2007, banning plastic bags from all major supermarkets and pharmacies in the area. The government gave businesses (exempting small ones) a year to switch to paper or compostable bags. NPR estimated that this legislation would reduce plastic-bag usage by five million bags each month. The move inspired similar action in Los Angeles, Paris, and London; and in Washington, D.C., residents now pay five cents for paper or plastic bags from stores, restaurants, and pharmacies.
3. North Olmsted, Ohio: No Sweatshop Goods
North Olmstead is a suburb in Cleveland that also happens to be the first area in the country to forbid products made in sweatshops. Mayor Ed Boyle came up with the idea in 2007, creating an ordinance that banned city vendors from buying, renting, or selling anything produced in a work environment with sweatshoplike conditions. Another Cleveland area, Bedford Heights, adopted the same ban, and other cities have looked into doing something similar.
4. Los Angeles, California: No New Fast-Food Restaurants
Los Angeles’s City Council made this highly controversial ban in 2008, deciding that South Los Angeles had more than enough fast-food establishments (about four hundred at the time), and put a yearlong moratorium on any new ones opening in the thirty-two-square-mile area. The council wanted to use that year to entice healthier restaurants and grocery stores into the neighborhood; the ban specified eateries that have drive-through windows and/or use heat lamps in lieu of freshly prepared meals. The council also enacted the ban to reduce the higher-than-average obesity rates in South L.A., though opponents argue that’s a form of food policing. But residents can still access hundreds of fast-food joints in the area. The problem is that there are very few grocery stores in comparison; the ban is supposed to close the gap a little and give people in the neighborhood more dining options.
5. New York, New York: No Trans Fat in Restaurants
Even more contested than the L.A. fast-food ban was Manhattan’s infamous trans-fat ban in 2006. The Board of Health voted to eliminate the unhealthy ingredient from all city restaurants by July 2008, giving chefs two years to replace it in their recipes. Even though trans fat is linked to heart disease and increases bad-cholesterol levels, many restaurant owners and citizens feared the ban would make food taste worse. Despite their doubts, a 2009 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that the ban—which reduced the amount of trans fat in NYC restaurants from 50 percent to 2 percent—didn’t hurt restaurant business. Plus, the amount of both trans fat and saturated fat was reduced in french fries by 50 percent, suggesting that restaurants offer more-healthful fare postban.
I always feel a little suspicious when something’s completely eliminated from public use because it can be a slippery slope. Even though I’m vehemently against smoking, I do feel that legislation limiting the right to smoke in cars and homes infringes upon people’s rights. That’s why I understand the outcry against fast-food and trans-fat bans, and even plastics and happy meal toys, to an extent—when does external enforcement of citizens’ personal lives and choices stop? Could these decisions, though meant for the greater good, be used to justify others that go too far? But limiting oneself to that mindset also limits anything good that can come from the restrictions, like healthier people and environments. These specific bans have the potential to do just that, which is why I hope they’re successful and influential, and that they’re not taken too far beyond their intentions.