Local bans proliferate from plastic water bottles to swearing to leaf blowers

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Future archeologists who stumble upon the annals of local government, circa 2012, may find this era remarkable for the things we tried to get rid of: enormous sodas, small plastic water bottles, public swearing, fatty food, loud leaf blowers.

Chelsea, Lynn, and Brookline have joined Cambridge and made the news, with the coverage sometimes favorable and sometimes mocking, for passing bans that tried to make their residents healthier, quieter, more environmental. But the expanding list of potentially prohibited food, drink, and noise has spawned its own debate: Do the bans work? And are they necessary?

“The best thing you can say for them is that they are inefficient and amount to little more than symbolic actions,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative Pioneer Institute in Boston, who finds the food and beverage bans particularly objectionable. “Then there is the fact that they intrude on people’s liberties.”

Many of the bans aim to make their communities healthier, as childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the last 30 years. Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Lynn, and Needham have all banned trans fats, an ingredient in processed foods that has been linked to heart disease.

Cambridge is also considering shrinking the size of sodas and other sugary beverages, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed to great controversy in New York City. This spring, regulations proposed by the state’s Public Health Council that would have banned some school bake sales were rejected by Governor Deval Patrick, after schools and community groups complained they needed the sales to raise money.

Among the doubters is Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in Harvard University’s economics department, who says that using government to restrict access to some fattening foods doesn’t work.

“There is just no plausible set of assumptions under which they are likely to have any meaningful effect,” he said. “There are so many ways that people are likely to consume calories.”

Other bans seek to protect the environment and improve the quality of life for residents. Concord’s Town Meeting decided in April to ban the sale of plastic water bottles smaller than 1 liter. But the session also voted — barely — against a proposal banning free-roaming cats by requiring them to be secured by leashes.

A host of towns, including Arlington and Marblehead, have tried to sanction quiet by prohibiting the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers. And in a ban that made national news, voters in Middleborough decided last month to fine anyone who swears in public. Public swearing in town has been a (rarely enforced) criminal offense since 1968, and the new local law, if it passes legal muster, would turn the crime into a civil offense, making it easier for police to enforce.

The swearing law, like all new municipal laws, must be approved by the state attorney general’s office before it can take effect. Middleborough police officers would have discretion about whether to ticket cursing in public, said Sergeant Robert Ferreira.

“We’ll have to see how it unfolds,” Ferreira said. “I think it won’t be enforced very often.”

In Arlington, landscapers and others opposed to the leaf-blower ban passed in May have raised about $10,000 to reverse it. The group, which gathered enough signatures to hold a special election Thursday , has been posting “Reverse the Blower Ban” lawn signs.

If the ban becomes law, neither home­owners nor landscape companies would be allowed to use gas-powered blowers between May 15 and Oct. 15, possibly prompting some landscapers to use electric models. But Joseph Cusce, owner of Black Diamond Landscapes in Arlington, says that electric leaf blowers, if they’re powered by generators, would still emit pollution. Air pollution and noise are the primary concerns of those who support the ban.

Ban opponents often say many prohibitions implemented by individual towns and cities are easily circumvented. Concord residents could slip into Bedford or Lincoln to buy a small bottle of water. Cantabrigians could drive to Somerville for a colossal-sized Coke.

And always, opponents worry that limiting personal decisions is a slippery slope. If police fine Middleborough residents for swearing, why not give them a ticket for hurling insults?

“From what we heard from town residents,’’ Cusce said of Arlington’s leaf-blower ban, “their concern is, what’s next? Lawn mowers? So everyone’s going to have to go back to an old-fashioned reel mower?”

There is nothing modern about bans. Americans have long tried to prohibit substances thought to be unhealthy, from alcohol in the 1840s and, ultimately, in Prohibition, and opium in the 1870s, Miron said. More recently, smoking has been banned in offices, restaurants, and public spaces.

Now, some observers say, junk food is the new tobacco. But Miron says that the proposed bans on supersized sodas that would play out in a world awash with McDonald’s 870-calorie chocolate shakes would be useless.

As for the ban on swearing, he says: “I’m not sure that I can say anything that’s printable.” Then he adds, “That seems completely idiotic to me.”

The trans fat ban has been less controversial, and has some science on its side: In February, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that blood levels of the four main trans fatty acids fell 58 percent in white Americans between 2000 and 2009, as the FDA required food labels to include trans fats, and communities began to ban them.

The campaign against trans fats has been successful because “you could single them out,” said Richard Daynard, a University Distinguished Professor and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University. “They weren’t necessary. It took the baking companies a little while to bake some of the stuff that they were using trans fats for but they figured it out. And people are healthier as a result.”

In Brookline — the first community in the state to ban trans fats, in 2007 — policing local restaurants and other eateries hasn’t been hard, said Dr. Alan Balsam, the town’s director of public health and human services. First, health officials told restaurants they could no longer cook with oils containing trans fats, since those were the easiest to replace. Next, trans fats were banned in baking.

Local companies whose signature menu item included trans fats could get a waiver until they could find — or the food industry could create — an alternative. Balsam recalls one waiver, for a caterer whose prized blintzes included trans fats. But with extra time, he said, the forbidden fat was replaced.

It’s harder to know whether banning supersized drinks will make people thinner, and that’s part of the controversy. Researchers disagree on how much sugary drinks have contributed to the obesity epidemic. And no one knows whether the ban will limit the amount of sugar that people ingest.

Daynard says that serious public health problems require serious public policy. Some researchers predict that the next generation is going to have a shorter life span than their parents. “That would be the first time in American history,” he said. “That’s a result of obesity.”

Much of the opposition to the supersize bans come from the food and restaurant industry, he said. “They’re pulling out all the usual stops — personal responsibility, freedom of choice,” he said. “But it’s basically about maximizing their sales and maximizing their profits, and to heck with the health of the public.”

Concord’s ban on small plastic water bottles will take effect in January if the state attorney general’s office agrees it’s legal. The town manager would decide who would enforce it. Individual-serving-size bottles of water would disappear from store shelves, but thirsty shoppers could still buy small plastic bottles containing other beverages — including soda.

Also seen in Boston Globe and Boston.com