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24th August

First published in The New York Sun, August 24, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Members of the City Council, that intrepid band of public servants hell-bent on finding the most intrusive ways of interfering in the lives of the rest of us, have a new cause. They seek to ban smoking in private automobiles when a child is present.

The question to me is not whether children need protection in this case, but at what point our private space begins and ends, and for what reasons society will tolerate the breaching of that space.

If the police (who obviously, according to some Council members, don’t have enough to do already) can stop a parent from smoking in his or her car, is the next step prohibiting smoking in any home with children? Or perhaps the next step is enforcing some future ban on children eating fast food or sugar-laden snacks?

And who is to decide just what is good for you and what is not? Does anyone on the City Council have any expertise here? Or are they just grabbing for a quick headline? These are the folks who brought you the ban on aluminum baseball bats, even in the absence of any evidence that such bats are more dangerous than the more expensive and far less durable wooden variety.

Despite this, the Council was totally comfortable making a decision based on their gut feelings. Similarly, we may surmise that the closed confines of an automobile may expose a child to danger from a smoking adult, but where is the scientific study that confirms this?

Earlier this week I chatted with the chair of the City Council’s Health Committee, Joel Rivera.

He was the fellow who proposed restrictive zoning to limit the number of fast-food restaurants in poverty stricken communities, an idea that hasn’t advanced even among his eager-to-meddle colleagues, although his advocacy for this scheme won him a measure of press exposure that reached far beyond city limits.

Mr. Rivera was elected to the Council to fill his father’s seat, when the elder Rivera moved to the state Assembly back in early 2001. At the time he was a 22-year old college student. He is a very nice young man, but he still hasn’t completed his college degree nor possesses any special training in the public health field.

This lack of credentials doesn’t stop Mr. Rivera from earnestly prattling on about childhood obesity, soaring diabetes rates, and future heart attacks all due to the Big Macs or Whoppers consumed by the little tykes apparently running wild through the city, unsupervised by parents, their pockets stuffed with cash to buy these dangerous treats.

Despite the mania surrounding all these never-ending health crises, the average life span of New Yorkers continues to steadily increase, despite their poor habits, and thus far without any special help from Mr. Rivera or his colleagues.

If we begin stopping motorists because some of us think that they are unfit parents because they smoke in their cars with children present, how long will it be before a similar ban might be imposed on smoking in the home? What will be the punishment for such an infraction? Might the ban on candy bars, chips, ice cream, and other treats, now enforced in school lunchrooms, also be extended to the home? Will future caseworkers from ACS remove children exposed to these dangers from their parents just as they remove children today who are being physically abused?

Does this sound preposterous? This level of government interference may seem extreme, but has been seriously considered in Britain, a place where silly ideas are often market-tested before being brought here. Earlier this year, the mother of eight-year-old Connor McCreaddie of Newcastle, England was called into a meeting with teachers, social workers, and health officials to determine her fitness as a parent. Serious consideration was given to taking the child from her for neglect. Connor wasn’t being beaten or sexually abused, and he certainly wasn’t underfed. Nicola McCreaddie appears to be a loving mother.

But Connor is quite obese, reported to be over five feet tall and already wearing a size eight shoe despite his tender age. From his size as well as his mom’s, it is clear that there is a genetic factor at play here. This didn’t stop the local officials from attempting to intervene, and they got support right from the top of the British health bureaucracy.

The BBC reported that the British secretary of state for health, Patricia Hewitt, stated “we have got a boy whose life and health have already been shockingly damaged because he is quite clearly eating the wrong food, and not able to take enough exercise. As I understand it, social services and children’s services are rightly very, very concerned about this boy, and are trying to make sure that they give him and his family every possible support in dealing with what is quite clearly a growing threat to this child’s health and happiness.” Even if it meant taking him from his mother’s care.

This case didn’t go anywhere as the outrage resulting from an avalanche of international publicity gave Connor and his mom a degree of protection from the intervention of the politicians and bureaucrats. But can this happen here? Our City Council appears ready, willing, and able.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.


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