The Vice Squad

Following is an editorial I really enjoyed. I hope you will too. - Garnet

But as the sinners of this world go about smoking and drinking and eating badly, enjoying their vices while they still can, perhaps the health police will come to realize they're fighting a war they can't win.

Consider the words, spoken nearly 2000 years ago, by the Roman historian Tacitus: "There will be vice as long as there are men." We'll keep indulging our bad habits.

After all, it's a free country.....for now.

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The Vice Squad
Why the new Puritans threaten us all


"The whole world is about three drinks behind."
-Humphrey Bogart

HOW DID IT come to this? When was it decided that the dorks and the squares, the button-down mediocrities for whom a third Friday-night beer is the height of excess, would be calling the shots? Who empowered these teetotaling chumps, these jogging crypto-fascists with spotless livers and unblackened lungs, to decide where we smoke and how we drink and what we eat? The Declaration of Independence professes a commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But apparently when it comes to substance abuse and foods of dubious nutrition, all bets are off. America is in very real danger from a creeping neo-prohibitionism, a systematic snuffing out of our beloved vices. It can only end badly.It's happening across the country. It's happening abroad. Smoking bans are everywhere. Happy hours are history. Colleges are drying out. Fast-food chains are excoriated for exercising their right - their duty! - to serve big-ass burgers. The calls for "sin taxes" grow louder. Is it that much of a stretch to envision this drip-drip-drip of reproach, repression, and regulation eventually culminating in black-market smokes and a second stab at Prohibition?

Hedonists and debauchees of the world: wake up! Our inalienable right to self-destructive behavior is being methodically stripped away, and we're standing by dumbly as it happens. The swarming armies of healthful drabness are gathering, and they mean to turn us into them. So far, they're winning. We must not let them.

"I smoke. If this bothers anyone, I suggest you look around at the world in which we live and shut your fuckin' mouth."
-Bill Hicks

BILL HICKS IS dead. Smoking can do that to a man. Cigarettes, no question, are bad news. But in case it's escaped your notice, an awful lot of people smoke them - they're those folks you see consigned to the sidewalks outside office buildings. Some people - your friends and neighbors, even! - like to puff a cigarette or two only when they're out for a Saturday-night cocktail. But in more and more places on the planet, smoking and drinking at the same time isn't allowed anymore.Smoking bans make sense, to a point. I won't argue, as some do, that the seriousness of secondhand smoke has been exaggerated. And as someone who hacks butts on a semi-regular basis, and who'd love to kick the habit, I gladly agree with common-sense rules. In airplanes, of course. Shopping malls. Even restaurants. But bars? Sorry. Smoking and boozing go together like Dean and Frank. To my mind, one of life's great pleasures is sitting in some quiet pub, a paper and a pint before me, the whorls from a cigarette playing in the late-afternoon sunlight.

And bless our laissez-faire legislators, that's a pleasure I can still enjoy in Florida - as long as I'm smoking in a stand-alone bar that gets less than 10 percent of its gross revenue from the sale of food.

Still, I can't help thinking that before long, it'll be illegal to smoke in any bar or club, in any state, in any country. Norway, for instance, enacted a nationwide ban last year. In squeaky-clean Scandinavia, that somehow makes sense. But Ireland? The verdant pleasure island with more pubs than people? It boggles the mind. Why should Dublin's nouveau riche call the shots? Can't some rural culchie, knackered after a day in the fields and ready to get fluthered down at the local, enjoy a fag with his pint? No, apparently - not if the publican doesn't want to fork over 3000 euros. Italy has prohibited smoking in most public places, too. England and Scotland may soon follow suit. Even Cuba - Cuba! - where cigar exports generate more than $200 million every year, has banned cigarette machines and prohibited puffing tobacco in restaurants and anywhere within 100 yards of schools. Cuba libre? No más. And none other than Fidel Castro, who once upon a time was rarely spotted without a cigar jutting from his natty beard, has quit.

At least indoor bans make some sense. Plenty of people are happy to come home from bars not smelling of smoke. I'll buy that. But it seems even indoor bans are not enough. Hawaii is now mulling prohibiting smoking on its public beaches. A San Francisco ban on smoking in city parks exempted golf courses originally, but now may include them after all. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, not content to snuff out smoking in bars from the Bronx to the Battery, has been pushing for a ban in Central Park. One wonders if the day will come when smokers won't even be able to indulge in their own homes.

A funny thing about that. A creepy new development has been reported of late. Howard Wyers, CEO of a Michigan medical-benefits administrator called Weyco, Inc., raised the hackles of civil-rights groups when - after instituting months of testing and offering numerous opportunities to enroll in cessation programs - he told four employees who refused to quit smoking that they'd be fired if they tested positive for tobacco use. Rather than submit to the test, they quit. Other employers - as many as 6,000, according to a recent Newsweek article - now simply refuse to hire smokers in the first place. The very fact that there's a need for so-called lifestyle-rights laws, which give workers recourse against employers who punish off-the-clock activities, is a chilling comment on an ostensibly free society. Where might this lead? Will companies soon be able to pink-slip workers with unhealthy eating habits? To mandate exercise regimens? Don't count it out.

"I think this would be a good time for a beer."
-Franklin D. Roosevelt, upon the repeal of Prohibition.

AS MOST PEOPLE with a cursory knowledge of American history are aware, the 18th Amendment was a colossal failure. The simple fact of the matter is that people like to drink. It's been central to the American experience ever since the Pilgrims first came ashore early on Plymouth Rock because they'd run out of "beere."Yet today, there still exists a faction of folks who want to suppress, even eliminate, alcohol consumption. It's not outside of the realm of possibility that Prohibition could someday make a comeback. A handful of well-funded organizations are working together to ensure that alcohol is vilified and that people drink less and less. The rules and regulations they advocate - taxation, more stringent licensing, censoring of ads - are aimed as much at moderate consumption as at real problems like addiction and drunk driving.

Take a group like the American Medical Association. It's an eminently respectable institution, yet in late 2002, it came out in favor of a total ban on prime-time-television beer and wine ads. Or the National Academy of Sciences, which in 2003 commissioned a study exploring ways to curb underage drinking. What was one of its primary solutions to a very real problem? Increasing taxes on beer. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is another organization that's often accused of having a neo-prohibitionist agenda. It used its $8 billion endowment to fund groups like the Rand Corporation - which pins youth drinking on "advertising that links alcohol to everyday life" (as opposed, apparently, to a life of depravity and perdition) - and even anti-alcohol editorial writers. According to the Center for Consumer Freedom - which represents a coalition of restaurateurs, tavern owners, and, yes, tobacco companies - the RWJF has "funded campaigns to ban alcohol from airports, parks, cultural events, sports stadiums, and even golf courses. It funds efforts to restrict the hours bars, restaurants, and liquor stores can stay open. And it has never met an alcohol tax it didn't like. Taken together, these efforts have been called prohibition 'drip by drip.'"

Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is guilty of overreaching. Founded in 1980 to rid roads of drunk drivers, the group has come far in raising awareness and reducing accidents. But with that, it seems, MADD has moved the goalposts, falling victim to "mission creep" that has seen it morphing from an anti-drunk-driving organization to an anti-drinking organization.

A glance at MADD's Web site bears this out. Plenty of its advocacies are aimed directly at the sin of drunk driving; for example, it voices support for dram-shop-liability laws, which hold alcohol-serving establishments responsible for damage caused by intoxicated patrons. Further down the page, however, one sees that MADD wants to rid the United States of "practices which encourage excessive alcohol consumption," such as happy hours and drink specials.

MADD's manifesto on alcohol advertising reads like an abstruse, legally binding contract. "[M]edia entities (television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and Internet) should establish and/or be held accountable to strong guidelines that will restrict alcohol advertising and marketing from reaching underage audiences and that those standards should apply to all alcohol advertising including beer, wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverages," it reads, adding that alcohol ads must not "feature actors, models or other talent or characters under the age of 30 … use celebrities, music stars, athletes, animals, cartoon characters, or other language or images that appeal to youth … depict sports [or] rock concerts … [or] depict revelry or hint at the possibility of inebriation." Moreover, it demands that alcohol ads be counterbalanced by a "matching amount and comparable placement of air time/ad space for alcohol-related public health and alcohol-related safety messages for young people and adults."

The outward aim of all this imperiousness is to curb underage drinking, of course. But one gets the feeling MADD would be pleased as punch if these stringent stipulations somehow also sent liquor sales plummeting. Even MADD's founder, Candy Lightner, has distanced herself from the group, expressing serious qualms about the direction it's taken. "It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned," she told the Washington Times in 2002.

Then there are more disturbing instances, examples of a frighteningly fascistic enforcement of sobriety. In a white paper titled "Back Door Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking," Radley Balko, from the libertarian Cato Institute, recounts a case that should chill the marrow of any American who believes in an adult's right to behave like an adult:

In December 2002 police in Fairfax County, Virginia initiated a series of 'stings' in bars and taverns… Eighteen tavern patrons were singled out, while still inside the tavern, and ordered to submit to alcohol breath tests. Half of them were then arrested for 'public intoxication.' None of the patrons had made an attempt to get behind the wheel of a car. None had been a nuisance for bartenders or caused any type of disturbance… Police Chief J. Thomas Manger told the Washington Post, "Public intoxication is against the law. You can't be drunk in a bar." When asked where someone could be drunk, he replied: "At home. Or at someone else's home, and stay there till you're not drunk." (Emphasis in original.

The crackdown on alcohol is most keenly felt on college campuses. No one disputes that student binge drinking poses serious problems. But in seeking to quash undergrads' overindulgence, many rules and regulations miss the point - and shift the problem. Take keg-registration laws. They make it easy to track purchases, and to hold customers liable for underage drinking. They also succeed in making 30-packs, party balls, and vats of punch wildly popular.

As someone who spent four of the best years of his life in a fraternity, I'm also puzzled by the increasingly draconian diktats Greeks are expected to abide by. An article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis in the New York Times Magazine this past January reported that "eleven national and international fraternities … now require most of their chapter houses to be alcohol free, no matter what their university's policy is."

College kids drink. It's what they do. But instead of facing up to this reality, an increasing number of schools are making their rules more stringent. As a predictable result, more and more students do their keg stands off-campus. Citing a statistic that's meant to exculpate Greeks, Denizet-Lewis simultaneously brings another telling number to light. "Some fraternity leaders point out that drinking-related deaths at fraternity houses make up fewer than a dozen of the 1,400 alcohol-related deaths at colleges each year (car accidents are involved in approximately 1,100 of those)." Why might car accidents account for 79 percent of alcohol-related fatalities? Could it have something to do with misguided prohibitions that, in moving alcohol consumption off campus, only increase the number of people who are getting behind the wheel?

Drinking has drawbacks, no doubt. But people will keep doing it. Wouldn't it be sensible, rather than drawing up more rules, to follow the lead of European countries, where alcohol is a healthy and intrinsic part of day-to-day life, where teens drink wine at the dinner table, and aren't encouraged to see alcohol as an illicit thrill? In the meantime, the news just keeps getting worse. Even Jack Daniel's is caving. It was reported this fall that the Lynchburg, Tennessee, distillery's Old. No. 7 Black Label "now registers 80 proof, instead of 86." Et tu, Jack?

"See, now's the time of the meal when you start getting the McStomachache … You get the McGurgles in there … Right now I've got some McGas that's rockin' … My arms got the McTwitches going in here from all the sugar that's going in my body right now. I'm feeling a little McCrazy."
-Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me

I LOVE McDonald's. But I eat there once a month, at most. Why? Because I end up feeling sick every time I do. Still, that crap tastes so effing good. And is it not my right as an American to gorge myself on trans fat and wash it all down with a 72-ounce bucket of hyper-caloric sugar water? Perhaps not for long.The backlash began a few years ago, when McDonald's was compelled, after much hectoring, to post nutrition information near its ordering counters. The news wasn't good. But here's a question: so what? Does anyone pass beneath those golden arches expecting a healthy square meal? No. They know what they're getting: something cheap, quick, and tasty that, if eaten regularly, will kill them. That's what Morgan Spurlock proved when he packed on the pounds and his liver turned to pâté. Fast food is not meant to be eaten every day. Do people do so anyway? Stupid people, yes. But that's their choice. Nonetheless, last month the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit revived part of a class-action lawsuit that had been dismissed in 2003; the suit seeks to hold McDonald's responsible for its customers' obesity, and charges the fast-food giant with false advertising.

Partly in reaction to all this, McDonald's is changing its menu. By the looks of it, it will soon read more like a fat-camp meal plan. Gone are the supersizes. The McNuggets are all white meat. And the New York Times reported a couple weeks ago that McDonald's "now buys more fresh apples than any other restaurant or food service operation, by far." More frightening, last year the food giant, according to a press release, "launched its first-ever, national Happy Meal for adults - the McDonald's Go Active! Happy Meal. This special meal includes one of McDonald's four Premium Salads, a fountain drink of choice or bottled water, a StepometerTM to track one's daily steps, and an informative booklet … containing a walking log and tips to easily integrate more physical activity into one's daily schedule." It's enough to make you feel like Superman in Bizarro World.

The case of Hardee's offers a welcome antidote to these healthful shifts. The chain's "Double Monster Thickburger," two hefty beef patties, four strips of bacon, three slices of melted cheese, and a generous slathering of mayonnaise, has been called "America's unhealthiest hand-held meal." At 1420 calories and 107 grams of fat, most of it saturated, it may be just that. So what? After all, is that not Hardee's right? The restaurant sells burgers. That's what it does. But no sooner had it unveiled the Monster Thickburger than the apoplectic response began. It was called "politically incorrect" and "the burger of death." C'mon. If people want to eat two hefty beef patties, four strips of bacon, three slices of melted cheese, and a generous slathering of mayonnaise, let them. Dum vivimus vivamus. (While we live, let us live.)

WHAT THE HELL is going on here? When did this country get overrun by killjoys and prudes? Aren't folks allowed to have fun anymore? Will the day soon come when each American citizen is subject to random weigh-ins? When gym memberships are handed out with our Social Security cards? When each household room is outfitted with a cigarette-smoke detector wired to the local police department? When bars and clubs institute two-drink maximums? Frank Kelly Rich, editor of Modern Drunkard magazine, an unabashed and gleefully provocative celebration of the lush life, wonders the same thing. "It's like this whole new age of nannyism," he says. "Everybody's trying to tell everybody else how to live. They're so concerned about their neighbor having too much fun that they stop remembering to have fun themselves."As he sees it, all the interesting and important people knew how to have fun. Those figures that blazed brightly, who marched to their own drummers, who changed the world? They were sots. "When you look back at history, all the major movers and shakers, these artists, these writers, they were all heavy drinkers. And they were totally fine. They were fully functional drunks! Look at Churchill! Look at FDR! They freed the world from tyranny, and they were drunk all the time."

The alternative, he implies, is to be an abstemious mediocrity, a milquetoast. So he's fighting the good fight: the fight for our right to party. It's an imperative, he says. "We're gonna wake up and realize we've lost our civil liberties in regard to drinking. The drunks have got to start organizing. The time has come where we're gonna have to - or we're gonna to lose our right to drink."

Dave Attell, the portly, balding, sweaty stand-up comedian who's best known for prowling the inky night on Comedy Central's Insomniac, eternally clutching a drink and a smoke as he hangs in the debauched underbelly of America, has noticed the walls closing in too. Speaking by phone from LA last summer, he lamented the vanilla-ization of more and more of his favorite late-night haunts. "It would be nice if there was a little balance," he said. "If we could smoke in a part of the bar again. I think it's only going to get worse, personally." So he's not taking any chances. "I'm stockpiling porn and cigarettes for the eventual end of it all. It'll be like money on the black market."

He's wise. We live in a country where "values voters" are suddenly calling the shots. Where our fundamentalist Christian president is an ex-drunk who's zealous in his piety and sobriety. Where liberals of a sanctimonious bent - you know who you are - sniff condescendingly at the imperfections of others. But as the sinners of this world go about smoking and drinking and eating badly, enjoying their vices while they still can, perhaps the health police will come to realize they're fighting a war they can't win. Consider the words, spoken nearly 2000 years ago, by the Roman historian Tacitus: "There will be vice as long as there are men." We'll keep indulging our bad habits. After all, it's a free country.

For now.

This article published by permission of the Boston Phoenix.

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