Social Issues

Stuffed Face

One man's war on pleasure


Samuel Hirsch isn't taking on McDonald's alone [see story above]. Law professor John Banzhaf, best-known as an anti-smoker obsessive, is serving as an adviser and researcher on his case. This summer he turned up on one of Charles Osgood's folksy CBS Radio reports, telling listeners that the various claims made by the fast food industry in its defense were no different from those offered by tobacco companies, "and we beat them."

But Prof. Banzhaf, his vainglory notwithstanding, didn't "beat" any tobacco companies. Big Tobacco remains hugely profitable and is even benefiting from the investment of state "tobacco windfall" funds. What Banzhaf and his smoker-hating allies did was to use Big Tobacco and state power to beat up on smokers, taking money from mostly low-income people while marginalizing them socially. That's one of Banzhaf's specialties: using the courts to hurt relatively powerless people, then claiming a mantle of courage for it.

The key to Banzhaf's repellent career is his effort in the mid-1990s to stamp out "Ladies' Night" promotions in Washington, D.C., bars. On Ladies' Night, women get a price break on drinks. That means more female customers, and thus more male customers anxious to meet them. The long-established practice satisfies everybody involved.

Everybody but Banzhaf. He saw the promotions as a privilege for one sex and thus a violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act. Banzhaf began a campaign of legal harassment, but not against the bars. Rather, Banzhaf targeted the local weekly, the City Paper, where the bars advertised. "If [bars] can't advertise" Ladies' Nights, he told a reporter, "more than half the value is gone." City Paper reluctantly caved, agreeing to police future ads for "discriminatory" language, thus becoming Banzhaf's agent of righteousness against men and women who might want to meet each other.

It was undistilled Banzhaf. The issue for him is rarely "injustice"; it is the terrifying possibility that somewhere there are people enjoying themselves, smoking, flirting, or even munching fries.