“Wrote them up for a labeling violation and made them aware that Montgomery County is a Trans Fat Free county,” he later wrote in his report. This time the deli would get off with a warning.
The banning of trans fat was among a series of controversial county laws passed in recent years, creating vigorous fights over the reach and role of government and testing the boundaries between personal liberties and the collective good.
Laws such as requiring calorie counts on menus, and requiring domestic workers to be offered a job contract, reinforced the county’s reputation as being one of the most progressive areas in the region, a county that, as one critic said, “loves to act as God.”
The same charge has been leveled against New York, which also has banned trans fat and is now targeting sugary, supersized drinks like 7-Eleven’s “Big Gulp.” Critics call them “nanny state” laws. Defenders say they’re well-intentioned attempts at prodding residents to make better life choices and ones about health, safety and equality.
But is Montgomery County any healthier? Or safer? Or more equitable?
The results are mixed. There have been significant improvements. The bag tax is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for water-quality programs. Major traffic collisions are down, according to county police, and federal studies show that the rate of diabetes is decreasing in the county.
There are troubling signs as well. Obesity has worsened in the county compared to the rest of the state, and federal data show that fewer residents feel healthier than just a few years ago.
But the effect of much of the legislation remains a mystery, in large part because the county often does not measure whether the laws have any impact.
Many of the health regulations “were put into place without much thinking about evaluation,” said Ulder J. Tillman, the county’s health officer.
Another problem is that, while the county has spent a lot of time and resources passing these regulations, there has been little to no enforcement of some of them.
Take the law passed in 2008 requiring residents to offer domestic workers a written contract. At the time, Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said he was worried about “whether we would be deemed to be the nanny government of all time.”
Still, the bill passed unanimously.
Since then, it’s been enforced once.
‘It’s an uphill battle’
In 2007, county legislators made national headlines by unanimously approving the trans fat ban.
The measure provoked scores of residents and business leaders to weigh in. Legislators held several hearings over two months to discuss the bill, which drew jeers from restaurant owners and irate bloggers. “Are we really going to regulate everything?” Trevor Bothwell, author of the “Who’s Your Nanny?” blog, lamented at the time.