News & Politics

Will There Be Trans Fat Speakeasies?


“After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States . . . is hereby prohibited.”

Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, January 16, 1919

“No foods containing artificial trans fat . . . shall be stored, distributed, held for service, used in preparation of any menu item or served in any food service establishment . . “

– NYC Board of Health Notice of Adoption, December 5, 2006

What beautiful historical synchronicity! On the very day that Dewar’s has faux newsboys on street corners passing out free copies of the Times to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the City of New York bans trans fats. After months of consideration, the Board of Health adopted a ban with a few softer edges for restaurants who opposed it, like a longer (18-month) implementation timetable and grace periods for firms to comply. But the bottom line is the same: No more trans fats.

The Bloomberg administration’s argument is simple: Trans fats are bad for you. Because they’ve been shown to lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol, trans fats are worst than those devilish saturated fats we all were told to cut out of our diets 10 years ago. Studies cited by the Board of Health suggest that between 6 percent and 23 percent of “coronary heart disease events” could be avoided by eliminating trans fats. That means banning them might mean that more people get to stay alive: “In 2004,” the Board of Health found, “23,000 New York City residents died from heart disease and nearly one-third of these individuals died before the age of 75.”

The typical lame counter-arguments to the ban were that it was unnecessary, that the food would taste different, or that it would be costly to restaurants (50 percent of whom use trans fats, according to a DOH survey).

But if you want to play contrarian (and somebody’s got to), you could say there’s something broader at work here. New York City is becoming healthier (Yay!) because the government is forcing it to (Yay?! Boo?!). First, no smoking in bars. Now, no fatty cakes. Next thing you know, the city’s gonna tell us to stop cutting ourselves for fun.

The city’s rationale is that activities like smoking cancer sticks or cooking with heart attack sauce are deadly, stupid, and cost the government money. Decades back, that’s exactly what the Temperance people said about booze. But ultimately, the temperance movement’s very rational arguments lost. What won? The right to do something profoundly unhealthy—and fun—like belly up to your favorite bar and order so many Harvey Wallbangers you forget your boss’s name.

That’s freedom, people! So pass the French Fries, while there’s still time.

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