New Yorkers began 2019 with a little less freedom than they had at the end of 2018, thanks to a raft of new laws targeting everything from selling cigarettes in pharmacies to drinking your coffee out of a foam cup.
Let's start with the cigarettes.
As part of an anti-smoking package passed in 2017, New York City adopted a rule that prohibits both drug stores and grocers with pharmacy sections from selling tobacco products of any kind. That law goes into effect this month.
"The tobacco-free pharmacy law is a public health victory," argues the city's health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot. "It builds on New York City's commitment to reduce the number of smokers in our city so New Yorkers can live longer, healthier lives."
That prior commitment Barbot references include bans on smoking (and vaping) in public housing, bars, restaurants, offices, and city parks. The city also has some of the highest tobacco taxes in the nation, and since June of last year it has set a minimum price of $13 for a pack of cigarettes.
A proposed, but failed, piece of city legislation from 2017 would have even banned people from smoking while walking.
The march of anti-smoking legislation has coincided with a fall in the rate of adults smoking. In 2011, some 16 percent of New Yorkers smoked, compared to 19 percent of Americans as whole. In 2016, that rate had fallen to 11 percent in New York City, and 15 percent nationally. How much of that decline is the result of anti-smoking legislation is an open question.
What is not an open question is that New York's tobacco taxes and minimum prices have led to a thriving black market. According to one estimate from the Tax Foundation, 56 percent of cigarettes consumed in New York state are smuggled in from lower-taxed jurisdictions.
That suggests that plenty of the city's smokers are not quitting their habit so much as spending more time and money satisfying it. Chances are good a ban on pharmacy sales will have a similiar effect, forcing smokers to go out of their way to buy cigarettes but not fundamentally changing their desire to smoke.
Unfortunately, going out of your way to buy cigarettes—or anything else—will also probably cost more, thanks to a new fee on Uber and Lyft rides.
Last year the state legislature approved a $2.75 surcharge on all individual rides performed by ridesharing services in central and lower Manhattan. Traditional cab rides are hit with a $2.50 fee, while pooled rides taken on services like Uber Pool and Lyft Line will see an additional $.75 charge. The fees are supposed to reduce congestion on city streets, with the revenue generated earmarked for funding New York City's public transit system.
Congestion pricing—in which drivers are charged a fee for the road space they take up—is not necessarily a bad idea. But the fact that New York's law selectively applies them to for-hire rides and charges a slightly lower rate to cabs diminishes its effectiveness at combating traffic. It also puts a heavier burden on one specific, politically disfavored type of transportation that New Yorkers had been increasingly adopting as an alternative to traditional public transit and yellow cabs.
The new fee was supposed to take effect on January 1, but has been held up thanks to a legal challenge from cab drivers.
Fortunately for the city's nannies, another petty piece of legislation held up for a legal challenge has finally got court-approval to go into effect: a ban on polystyrene foam containers.
This ban has its origins in a 2013 law that banned all such foam containers deemed unrecyclable. In late 2014, the city's sanitation commissioner ruled there was no possible way polystyrene materials could be recycled, meaning the stuff had to go.
The decision was quickly greeted with a lawsuit from restaurants that depend on the cheap foam containers. They argued that polystyrene was indeed recyclable. The courts ultimately rejected this challenge in June 2018, allowing the city's prohibition on everything from foam coffee cups to packaging peanuts to go into effect at the start of 2019. Fines for selling, distributing, or even possessing banned foam items range from $250 to $1,000, depending on the number of offenses.
Restaurants will have the next six months to come into compliance with the new law. But the additional costs of purchasing non-polystyrene products will raise costs for some businesses and may kill off some on the margins.
Increasing prices and decreasing choices are the common threads running through all these new rules. And while New Yorkers—and residents of large American cities in general—are no strangers to petty nanny-state impositions, these restrictions diminish one of the primary benefits of living in cities: an abundance of choice and convenience.