Ten times a year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) puts out what some of us call its “Don’t Eat, Drink or Be Merry” newsletter. This organization has made a name for itself by attacking everything from cheeseburgers to Chinese carry-out. Its latest issue warns Americans that sit-down restaurants are nearly as dangerous as Omaha Beach in 1944.
According to CSPI, restaurants create a “pressure to eat,” which in turn makes Americans fat, which in turn kills them at a rate of 400,000 per year. That’s roughly eight times the total war dead from Vietnam and equal to the number of American lives lost in World War II. Although this number is completely unfounded, CSPI sees it as an epidemic in need of immediate action. (The action they propose would basically boil down to American restaurants and their clients losing the right to serve or eat what they choose.)
No one should think this is merely another fringe group beating the bongos of hysteria. CSPI is big, well-financed and part of a larger movement to restrict what Americans eat, drink— even how we smell. The theater of battle is every restaurant, diner, pub and tavern, because these are public places which can be subjected to laws and regulations that, for the time being anyway, would be considered too invasive if applied to private residences.
All of us need to understand what these activists are up to. Otherwise,they’ll win by default. As it is, they are succeeding at an astounding rate. Who would have guessed just a few years ago that smoking would be outlawed in all California bars and restaurants?
Who would have dreamed the United States government would radically redefine “obesity,” thus transforming millions of Americans not only into insurance risks, but into potential parties to a class action lawsuits directed at food producers, providers, and servers? Who would have dreamed that a “fat tax” and caffeine warning labels could become the topic of serious debate in the media?
And who would have guessed there would arise out of this litigious swamp something called a “scent activist,” one of whom told The Wall Street Journal: “Why should we have brain damage because people are wearing toxic chemicals?” He meant, by the way, perfume and cologne.
I recognize this might be construed as the complaint of a fellow whose livelihood is under attack. There’s no doubt that as regulations on eating, drinking, and smoking increase, the restaurant industry will suffer.
But there is a much larger issue here. On the societal scale, restaurants, bars, and coffee houses not only employ millions of Americans. They also serve as what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places” — locations where citizens can unwind, talk with friends and strangers, and enjoy a break from their ordinary routines. (Work and home are the other two places.)
In fact, for many people these are the only places where such interaction occurs. We are living in a time of increased isolation and social stratification. Not only are Americans “bowling alone,” as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam so memorably put it. They are increasingly working alone, shopping alone and dining alone. Americans now spend more money on fast food than they do in sit-down restaurants, where it was typical to be joined by a friend or family member. An increasing number of Americans are responding to restrictions on restaurant behavior by supporting businesses which deliver prepared dinners to their homes – along with an after-dinner cigarette or cigar. The activists’ success means more and more of us are trading in our night out for an evening at home, alone.
The vast majority of Americans, it should be said, fully reject efforts to ruin their social-life choices. Polling by Yankelovich Partners Inc. found that 72 percent of Americans agree that “when I want to go out to a restaurant, I like to order what I really want, whether it’s healthy or not.” Similarly, 68 percent of Americans believe the government already intervenes too much in their personal life. They firmly oppose a “fat tax” on high-fat foods (87 percent), banning restaurants from serving alcohol (81 percent) and preventing people from wearing perfume or cologne when they go out to eat (88 percent).
The problem, of course, is activists don’t care what normal Americans want. They are on a mission to change our behavior. They outlawed smoking in California barrooms. They nearly instituted a nationwide drunk driving standard that would have criminalized social drinking. They are creating an environment in which a “fat tax” can make its way into law. They scored another victory when a California woman was recently awarded $70,000 because a co-worker declined her repeated invitations to stop wearing perfume.
We have come a long way since Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in the Indian Queen Tavern in Philadelphia (and not in the “no smoking” section, we can be assured). As recently as a decade ago, the thought that a person could receive what amounts to two years’ pay because a fellow worker wore perfume would have attracted close psychiatric scrutiny. No longer.
Restaurants aren’t Omaha Beach, but they are the places where members of the health culture hope to gain the foothold they need to start a serious invasion of our privacy and campaign against normal adult choices. As Americans it is our obligation to counter this offensive. We should ensure that our rights are maintained, no matter what some groups claim to be doing in “the public interest.”
— Bill Hyde is president and CEO of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, based in Metairie, La.