FEATURE ‌ Ban Wagon 

The seat belt-wearing, nonsmoking, fried food-hating, game-squashing, tattoo-tolerating nanny state of South Carolina

click to enlarge Unless the state intervenes,  Charlestons citywide ban against smoking starts in early July - STEGELIN
  • Stegelin
  • Unless the state intervenes, Charlestons citywide ban against smoking starts in early July

Brush your teeth. Comb your hair. No TV after 8 p.m. No video games on school nights. No dessert untilyou finish your dinner. No gambling. No smoking.No trans fats. No cellphones in the car. No foie gras. The state has been forced out of our bedrooms (even though South Carolina's unenforceable law against sodomy is still on the books), but it seems that they're heading into every other nook and cranny of our lives to make sure we do the right thing.

Is it an attack from the morality police? Is it an honest effort to protect us from ourselves? Probably a little bit of both. Considering all of the things that government officials don't want you to do, it's easy to paint these folks with the same brush. But certain bills can make strange bedfellows. Legislators who wouldn't even consider further limits on abortion would ban smoking in restaurants. Those who oppose gambling may see a careless driving bill as overreaching.

Several "nanny state" initiatives are making their way through the S.C. legislature. Some have little chance of passing — the trans fat ban or the fine for careless driving — but a decade ago the smoking ban was considered DOA too, and look where we are now.

Smoking

Bar owners statewide, particularly in Charleston, are waiting with butts dangling to see the future of a bill banning smoking in restaurants that would leave bars unaffected. The bill would also prohibit cities from instituting more restrictive ordinances than the state's, potentially invalidating a City Council decision in January to make all bars and restaurants in Charleston smoke-free by early July.

"The local government made that decision after a lot of bloodletting," said Councilman Paul Tinkler, who helped craft the ordinance. "Now the legislature is coming along and considering wiping all that out and doing away with home rule."

Home rule is the state law that says a municipal body can determine its own destiny, and municipal leaders will often refer to it when the state reacts to a municipality seemingly overstepping its bounds.

The bill has made it onto the full Senate calendar, but hasn't come up for debate. The Greenville News reported last week that the bill is likely dead this year thanks to a procedural challenge by two senators, including Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston).

That's not all that's floating around the statehouse. Remember when it used to just be illegal to give kids cigarettes? It could soon be illegal to smoke near them ... in your car. There are two bills that would limit a person's ability to smoke in a car if riding with a child (one says younger than 10 and the other says toddler).

Driving and ...

And while we're in the car, another bill in the Statehouse would create a law against "careless driving" with a $50 fine. The offense includes "reading; writing; personal grooming; interacting with passengers, pets, or unsecured cargo; using a computer; using a wireless telephone; using personal communication technologies (legislative speak for "texting"); or engaging in any other activity which caused the driver to be distracted." The last one leaves it up to the reader to take this to a dirty place.

Of course, where vehicles are concerned, some useful, good regulations exist — like seat belts (a state law) or helmets for motorcycle riders (not a state law). But careless driving can be entirely subjective ... until there's an accident. Is someone dangerously distracted when they eat crackers on the drive to work? Probably not. Is someone dangerously distracted when the crackers fall between their legs and they crouch down to pick them up? Yes.

While the S.C. bill has sat dormant in subcommittee, the issue is seeing movement in other states. Earlier this month, the state legislature of Washington became the first to ban texting while driving, while other states already have laws banning hand-held cellphone use.

Bad Food Fights

Just last year, S.C. repealed a ban on serving raw meat, bending to the will of the market while preserving state standards to ensure safety. Now the nanny food of the moment is trans fats — fatty acids found in some foods, particularly fast food and snacks. They increase the risk of coronary heart disease (bad) and can be a factor in obesity (not good, either). Trans fats are so bad that the National Academy of Sciences doesn't even bother with an accepted amount. The best answer is none.

Last year, the FDA instituted labeling standards for trans fats, and it expects the program to save 250-500 lives per year by 2009. While the Feds are focusing on labels, cities across the country are taking up the task of banning trans fats. As Charleston goes smoke-free in July, New York City will be implementing the first phase of its trans fat ban in most restaurants. Philadelphia officials OK'd a similar law in February. Other countries, most notably Canada and Denmark, have started limiting the percentage of trans fats in products.

And U.S. states are getting into the fight as well. Massachusetts, Vermont, California, and Maryland are taking on the debate. In the South Carolina legislature, there are three bills that would limit or ban the use of trans fats, including one authored by Sen. Ford. What will likely stall the measure in South Carolina is, ironically, the idea of individual rights; a person's smoking or careless driving may arguably endanger others, but it's a stretch to put the blame of trans fat consumption on anybody else.

Seeing the writing on the wall with much more clairvoyance than the cigarette industry, national chains and local restaurants are voluntarily tossing trans fats from their kitchens. Activists suing some companies over their use of trans fats hasn't hurt, either. KFC, Wendy's, and McDonald's have all announced plans to replace the trans fats used in fried foods. Walt Disney Co. has also promised to cycle out trans fat use at its theme parks and in its food products.

While foie gras, a culinary delicacy made from goose liver, was banned in Chicago, the reason has been less due to consumer health and more in regards to what's been seen as inhumane treatment of the bird prior to slaughter.

click to enlarge Regardless of whether youre playing Old Maid or playing cards with an old maid, South Carolina has banned card - and dice games since 1802 - STEGELIN
  • Stegelin
  • Regardless of whether youre playing Old Maid or playing cards with an old maid, South Carolina has banned card and dice games since 1802

Gambling

A little more than a year ago, about two dozen people were playing poker in a Mt. Pleasant home when the cops busted in, arresting everyone and taking every dollar and cent they could find, whether it was on the poker table or not.

Amelia Cheseborough, 79, was by far the oldest gambler at the tables that night. Her daughter helped the 40-year poker player find local games on the internet.

"She was happy I found a group to play with because I was so unhappy here," Cheseborough says.

The meet-ups eventually led her to the Mt. Pleasant game and the subsequent police raid.

"My whole family thought it was crazy," she says.

While Cheseborough and 17 others vowed to fight the arrest, she eventually settled the case, paying only $50 in court costs. Other players are also slowly settling their cases, but Cheseborough says she doesn't think the raid has slowed down local poker players.

"There's a million games going on every day and they're not getting busted," she says. "(The raid) was a fluke."

But it's not just gamblers who are getting stiffed by the state law — cancer patients are, too. Richard Todd and Chuck Taylor of WTMA recently canceled their Holy City Charity Poker Challenge, a charity game for the local cancer charity ASCEND, after a state Attorney General opinion said the game, which would have had no prizes and only a suggested donation, was against an 1802 state law against nearly every game imaginable with cards or dice.

"If you're playing Old Maid, you're breaking the law," Todd says.

The Nannying Goes On

Look around and you'll find other "nanny state" relics in the tombs of the state laws. Many of the state's blue laws against doing pretty much anything on Sundays are still on the books, as well as a ban against minors playing pinball machines. While the court recently forced the state's hand on allowing tattoos, the law prohibits tattoos for adults under the age of 21 unless they are with a parent.

A local shop owner, who asked not to be named, said that a group of troops getting ready to head overseas on a mission came into the shop recently in hopes of getting an identical tattoo, but only one of them was over 21, so they took their business to Georgia.

But there are signs of progress. Earlier this month, both houses of the state legislature approved a bill that would allow beers with an alcohol content higher than 5 percent. It's not that you'll get more of a buzz, its just that the beer might taste better. Apparently, if there's one thing the nannies can't stand, it's low-gravity beer. The bill must still be signed by Gov. Mark Sanford.

click to enlarge One law currently on the books bans minors from playing pinball games - STEGELIN
  • Stegelin
  • One law currently on the books bans minors from playing pinball games

Not all nanny state provisions are bad, with some having a much easier time winning support when those being tread upon deserve it. No one would argue against parole requirements for criminals. Technology is pushing these types of provisions even further. There's legislation to create a statewide monitoring system for convicted sexual predators and a requirement for people convicted of DUI's to install a device in their cars that will check their breath for alcohol before the car will start.

For those without a criminal record, there's alternative ways to deter things like smoking and careless driving. Increasing the state cigarette tax, currently the lowest in the country, would not only deter smokers but also put money in state coffers. And educating restaurant owners about the dangers of secondhand smoke has gone a long way in encouraging them to go smoke-free without government prodding. Toyota recently sponsored a Denver driving course for parents and teens that, much like the "beer-goggles track" that simulates drunk driving, shows the real implications of careless driving — no $50 fee necessary.

The problem with the nanny state is that it flies in the face of the individual rights our country was founded on, Todd says. Cigarette smoke obviously isn't good for you and going without your seat belt is living dangerously, but it's your right. "The number one freedom you have is the freedom to be stupid," Todd says.

Yes, it's the freedom to be stupid enough to smoke a cigarette on your Harley without a helmet while texting your grandma at Bingo, where she's eating fried chicken and tattooing a 20-year-old. And it's the freedom not to do all that, but to know you can.


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