Debra J. Saunders
San Francisco passed America's first ban on plastic bags in chain groceries and drugstores in 2007. In a research paper for the Institute for Law and Economics, law professors Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright crunched state and federal data on emergency room admissions and food-borne illness deaths and figured that the San Francisco ban "led to an increase in infections immediately upon implementation."

They found a 46 percent rise in food-borne illness deaths. The bottom line: "Our results suggest that the San Francisco ban led to, conservatively, 5.4 annual additional deaths."

So is San Francisco's bag ban a killer? Conceivably, yes, but probably not.

Intuitively, the professors' findings make sense. The city's anti-bag laws are designed to drive consumers to reusable bags. Consumer advice types warn people about the dangers of said bags becoming germ incubators. I got this from TLC's website:

"Designate specific bags for meats and fish. Wash these bags regularly -- preferably after each shopping trip -- to get rid of bacteria. If your bag is fabric, toss it in the washing machine with jeans, and if it's a plastic material, let it soak in a basin filled with soapy water and either the juice of half a lemon or about a quarter cup of vinegar."

Ask your friends and family members how many of them regularly wash their reusable bags -- ask how many folks ever have done any of the above steps -- and you can intuit that a ban on plastic bags might not be the brightest idea.

San Francisco health officer Tomas Aragon reviewed Klick and Wright's paper and found "a biologically plausible hypothesis" but "sloppy" research. "It's a complicated topic. It's a little surprising that (they) would put this out there without a peer review," he added. If the professors had consulted with an epidemiologist, they would have understood how the city's unique demographics contribute to specific intestinal issues. (Unlike Aragon, I'm trying to be delicate here and not share too much information.)

In short, the doctor concluded that the study raised more questions than it answered.

Dave Heylen of the California Grocers Association ripped the study for not understanding something really basic about how the San Francisco bag ban worked at first. "People weren't using reusable bags," Heylen said. "They were using paper bags."

Be it noted, the grocers have supported proposals for a statewide ban on plastic bags -- which would require supermarkets to charge for single-use bags -- because they provide what the sponsor of Sacramento's latest effort, Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, calls "uniformity of experience" for shoppers and store owners. (It also means big stores can charge for bags and blame the government.)


Debra J. Saunders


 
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