Where does 'public space' end and 'my space' begin?

Sanitizing all public spaces smells a bit like government regulation of private lives.

Anyone who has flown the friendly skies of late may have noticed a disturbing trend. I'm not referring to the endless post-9/11 security checks we've all come to expect, where shoes, tweezers, laptops, nail files, and a variety of other formerly nonthreatening items now double as WMD.

But there's another war brewing - a new terror in the skies. It's the war on nut snacks. And it could get ugly.

While the peanut war is not exactly a new conflict, (some schools have outlawed the nut in an attempt to minimize risks to peanut allergy sufferers), the latest brouhaha surrounding this popular legume has once again reared its ugly head, surfacing 30,000 feet up where peanut allergy sufferers and airlines may come to blows once again.

The last highly publicized firestorm targeting the peanut was back in 1998, when the government introduced legislation requiring "peanut-free buffer zones" on all flights (at least three rows for passengers who document severe allergy to peanuts). But much to the dismay of the peanut allergy sufferer who remains at risk for an attack or even possible death just from being in the same room with peanut dust, that bill was nixed in the 11th hour.

Currently, there are no established guidelines within the airline industry regarding peanuts and peanut allergies. Rather, airlines have established their own protocol of varying degrees, from peanut snacks to no tree-nut products at all allowed on board.

Anecdotal reports from recent flights confirm the lack of uniformity among different airlines. New York City frequent flier Jeff Gold was privy to the route some airlines have chosen in an effort to address the needs of peanut allergy sufferers.

During his JetBlue flight from JFK airport to West Palm Beach, Fla., last month, Mr. Gold was surprised to hear an additional announcement following the preflight emergency instructions: "This is a peanut-free flight," the airline attendant warned, requesting that anyone with any peanut products refrain from opening them while on board.

After Mr. Gold reluctantly retired his contraband Snickers bar, he wondered if everyone would be as cooperative, recalling the dissension that ensued among New Yorkers after smokers and nonsmokers took their respective corners and came out swinging at the inception of the citywide ban imposed on smoking in public venues. Smokers complained that their rights were violated after the controversial decision made by city officials, stirring a heated debate about government intervention in the private lives of its citizens.

"What about perfumes and environmental allergies? How about Democrats who are allergic to Republicans?" Gold quipped. "Will the government someday step in and oversee how we deal with these intrusions?"

Gold may not get his wish regarding the segregation of political parties, but perfumes may in fact soon be history for one Massachusetts high school. The Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School Committee recently met to consider the establishment of a fragrance-free school policy. Superintendent Barry Motta initiated the proposal after receiving numerous complaints by staff and students claiming a host of symptoms after exposure to fragrances. The ban would outlaw colognes, perfumes, scented deodorants, and body sprays.

It's understandable that those who suffer a reaction induced by scents would welcome the establishment of fragrance-free zones. But high school students entering that tenuous developmental stage, where rebellion, coupled with an increased awareness of their olfactory senses, may be hard pressed to follow the acrid proposal. Not to mention the hit the fragrance industry could take if unable to target its teen demographic.

While libraries and government offices have already established fragrance-free policies, the cynic in me wonders, what's next? Could mass transit, movies, theater, sporting events, and any group activity performed in an enclosed space be far behind? I wonder what happens to those unwilling to go au naturel when it comes to body odor. Would those in favor of donning scents attempt to propose their own ordinance that would require the not-so-fresh smelling to pay some sort of fine, too?

Though nice in theory, bans are not always easily implemented. In 2002, New York City's attempted indoor cellphone ban was not approved, while a citywide noise ban was. "Operation Silent Night" was the mayor's attempt to get the city that never snoozes to pipe down. While a nice idea, I still wonder if it's possible to lower the volume in a city that houses 8 million people on 364 square miles.

Fortunately there is always the great outdoors with wide open spaces for those in search of boundaryless pursuits that do not infringe on the personal rights of others. Unless of course, you're in Calabasas, Calif. This southern California suburb recently implemented a smoking ban in all outdoor public areas (except designated spaces), reportedly the first of its kind in the United States.

According to the bill, anybody could file a lawsuit against anyone smoking within 20 feet of them. An outdoor smoking ban may reduce secondhand smoke exposure. But combining America's propensity to litigate with the growing trend to protect one's personal space may unduly burden our judicial system with additional questionable lawsuits.

Where does this all end - is anyone immune to the intervention of government into the lives of its private citizens?

Who's next, the Easter Bunny? Well, only if you live in St. Louis, Mo., as a recent ban on the bunny has commenced after a toy rabbit, colored eggs, and a sign exhibiting the words "Happy Easter" were removed from the lobby of city offices, fearing non-Christians might find it offensive.

I wonder if Thomas Jefferson may have had the right idea when he suggested, "That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves."

True, unless of course you're the Easter Bunny.

Jill Rachel Jacobs is a New York based writer and humorist.

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