Opinion

‘Nanny Statism’ Is Sweeping The Nation One Straw Regulation At A Time

Alex Muresianu Freelance writer

Starbucks isn’t the only one going after plastic straws. Your local government could be next! The City of Seattle just passed a law banning restaurants from giving customers plastic straws or utensils.

This new law is just another example of misguided nanny state rules intended to address public health or environmental concerns. Such laws not only restrict individual liberty but also fail to achieve their policy goals while hurting the economy and sometimes even public health.

Unsurprisingly, California is leading the charge in this new wave of nanny statism. Multiple California cities, including Davis and San Luis Obispo, have passed laws banning restaurants from offering plastic straws to patrons.

In January of this year, the California state legislature proposed a similar ban, under which violators could face fines of $1,000. After serious pushback, the bill’s sponsor reduced the fine to $25 a day after two warnings.

For areas that pride themselves on their progressive politics, California and Seattle are very willing to pursue regulations with heavily regressive impacts. Punishing waiters with exorbitant fines is a regulatory strategy that clearly directly negatively affects low-income workers. The Seattle law places the $250 per offense fine on restaurants, not waiters; however, the fines or 10 percent higher costs will likely be most felt by small businesses.

Past government anti-plastic measures, such as the plastic bag tax in New York City, have hurt small businesses and low-income consumers the most. Conversely, large fast-food chains such as McDonald’s have already begun to voluntarily shift away from plastic straws.

The economic and individual freedom concerns aside, the environmental impact of discarded straws is dubious at best. Reason reported that the most-cited estimate of straw usage (500 million straws a day) was calculated by a then-nine-year-old.

But California isn’t done introducing unnecessarily restrictive, economically regressive, and environmentally oversold regulation. Last month, a bill to ban polystyrene foam containers narrowly failed in the California Senate, and another bill banning take-out food containers will likely be brought forward again next year.

Advocates of the foam container ban claim that polystyrene containers are a major component of marine debris pollution, as they are non-biodegradable. These containers are recyclable, however, so instead of banning them outright, it would be more efficient to allocate resources to expanding recycling programs.

Furthermore, an analysis from San Francisco’s Environmental Department found that banning polystyrene containers would not reduce litter but simply shift the composition of litter away from polystyrene.

The negligible environmental change aside, banning foam containers will raise input costs for businesses, especially smaller restaurants and restaurants that sell cheap food. The ban would have a regressive effect; it will likely lead restaurants that utilize styrofoam to pass on increased costs to their consumers, who may be disproportionately low-income. Just like the ban on straws, a foam container ban would not make the environmental impact its supporters claim, while at the same time hurting the most vulnerable members of society.

Soda taxes, intended to curb obesity and lower health care costs, are another example of an intrusive local policy that both hurts the poor and fails to achieve its policy goals. The burden of soda taxes falls disproportionately on middle-income and low-income households.

Advocates of the soda tax argue that soda’s negative health effects are also regressive, but soda taxes only have a small impact on those health effects. While it’s shown that consumers do shift away from soda consumption, they replace soda with other food products such as alcohol or sugary snacks, minimizing the health benefits of lower soda consumption. If these policy failings were insufficient, soda taxes (in Philadelphia, for example) are an unstable source of revenue for government services.

My hometown also experimented with similar regulations. Back in 2013, Concord, Massachusetts, banned the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles, in an attempt to reduce environmentally harmful plastic waste. While consumption of single-serving plastic water bottles fell, consumers substitute soda for the water, a worse choice for public health.

From soda taxes to foam container bans and straw fines, there’s a common thread running through all of these policies.

State and local governments overestimate their ability to change people’s behavior without causing negative spillovers and restricting liberty. Local policymakers consistently fail to see the unintended consequences of these nanny state regulations, which often fully negate the goal of the regulation itself.

Alex Muresianu is a Young Voices Advocate and a federal policy intern at the Tax Foundation. Opinions expressed here are his only and not the views of the Tax Foundation. Find him on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.