Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter seems to be in the middle of an existential crisis. Now, normally this confrontation with life, the universe, and everything is perfectly natural and OK. That is, most men react to these crises with something harmless like impulse-buying a sports car.
The problem here, though, is that Nutter is taking at least 375,000 Philadelphians along for his ride into the “What’s the point?” abyss with his new executive order “banning” smoking in public parks.
Nutter’s the guy who callously slashed library funding by $8 million in 2008, eliminating 117 library jobs. Later, Nutter tearfully “corrected” his wrong by putting back a fraction ($2.5 million) of the original cut in his proposed budget this year. He also proposed the new property tax valuations, called the AVI. It’s arguably a necessary fix but nobody’s happy about it, particularly because the AVI seems at best complicated and at worst arbitrary. And, Nutter’s the guy currently presiding over a police force disproportionately arresting black people while seemingly ignoring white people violating those very same laws.
Basically, Nutter seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis because he sure as hell looks a lot like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg right now.
Bloomberg presided over one of the most obnoxiously nanny-stating tenures in New York City history. He banned sugary sodas, a ban later deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Bloomberg also presided over a police force notorious for its racist practices and procedures. And, Bloomberg really doesn’t care for smoking. Not one bit. Hell, even NPR calls Bloomberg’s obsession with tobacco an all out “crusade.”
Nonetheless, when Mayor Michael Nutter tried to tax sodas in his first term, I understood it. A 2 percent levy on a substance that, like all other empty calorie foods, causes more problems than it fixes is somewhat reasonable. After all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly 70 percent of adult Philadelphians are overweight or obese. This is a problem.
Still, it was wrongheaded because, really, in this city there’s a hell of a lot more to fix than convincing Wawa customers to get a bottle of water instead of a Sprite (more important things to fix like, you know, making sure kids can actually read by not cutting library funding).
Now, smoking is a very bad thing indeed. In fact, as a smoker, I recognize how utterly stupid, disgusting, and awful my wonderful nicotine habit is. But, Philadelphians who smoke pay taxes on these cigarettes. Very high taxes. And, we go outside and accept that everyone hates us.
Most bizarre of all is the fact that because Nutter decided to spend time “fixing” the public smoking in parks non-issue with an executive order instead of allowing the democratic process to actually commence via City Council, the police can’t really do anything to offenders. Basically, Nutter has empowered city officials to wag their fingers at smokers in Rittenhouse Square.
The thing is that we already have laws on the books prohibiting littering in public parks. So there goes that rationale. And, nobody in his right mind seriously thinks that smoking outdoors away from other people produces the same type of secondhand smoke that is actually harmful to folks. So there goes that rationale. And, the executive order is toothless without serious ramifications (like a monetary penalty) for violations. So, there goes that rationale.
Basically, this was a ploy for attention and to burnish some sort of nanny-stater bona fides. Congratulations, Mayor Nutter! You’ve just pissed everyone off for no apparent reason at all. And, you’ve just made the law look completely arbitrary and meaningless. At the risk of sounding hysterical, I need to point out that the more our government enacts policies nobody follows or believes in, the less anyone takes the law seriously in any regard.
These toothless regulations do nothing but piss people off and alienate folks. Poor Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, a smoker himself, is inhaling the vapors of Nutter’s pointless nanny-state trolling, too. He’s even hysterically raising the specter of fascism in relation to the ban. Bykofsky said to Newsworks, “I think, eventually, all the cigarette smokers will be rounded up and forced into one ghetto in a part of the city where they will be allowed to smoke and they will not be allowed to smoke in their own homes.”
Now, histrionics aside, Bykofsky has a point. Where the hell is the limit to this insanity? These weird forays into statism don’t just affect a small number of folks, either. The CDC says that 25 percent of all Philadelphians smoke: That’s 375,000 people who are already putting up with enough bullshit from non-smokers.
So, really, there’s a lot of work to be done in Philadelphia. And, I like Michael Nutter a lot. He has a good vision for Philadelphia. But, really, things are starting to look a wee bit too much like Thunderdome for us to be worrying about non-issues like this right now.
Josh Kruger is a writer and commentator in Philadelphia. He is the 2014 recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists' award for best non-daily commentary in Pennsylvania. Follow @jawshkruger on Twitter.