Thursday, August 21, 2008
A ban on new fast-food restaurants in south Los Angeles doesn’t address the real causes of obesity.
At a time when public officials across America are finding creative ways to combat the “obesity epidemic,” the Los Angeles City Council has decided to try a radical approach: it is seeking to regulate the number of fast-food restaurants in the mainly low-income neighborhoods of south Los Angeles through zoning controls. Permits for fast-food restaurants will not be issued in a 32-square-mile section of the city. Though the ban is only effective for one year, it is renewable for two six-month increments—and its sponsors are hoping to make it permanent. Other cities, New York in particular, are considering whether to adopt similar regulations.
The fast-food ban has been promoted as an economic development plan designed to bring more dining options to the community, such as sit-down restaurants and supermarkets. Its supporters cite the high obesity rates in south Los Angeles. (Approximately 30 percent of south L.A. residents are obese, in comparison to 21 percent in the rest of L.A. County and 25.6 percent nationwide.) They believe the fast-food ban will help reduce obesity and also save taxpayer money, since obesity places enormous costs on the California state Medicare system.
However, critics compare it to a mandate that everyone eat salads and lose weight. Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and William Saletan of Slate have examined the racial and socioeconomic implications. As Bader points out, many civil rights groups that support the fast-food ban were outraged when a Domino’s Pizza franchise refused to deliver to certain neighborhoods. Saletan criticizes the City Council for “depicting poor people…as less capable of free choice.” Others complain that the ban defies economics. Both fast-food and sit-down restaurants are being asked to ignore their own economic interests. As the California Restaurant Association notes, if the south L.A. market demanded sit-down restaurants, they would already be there.
The fast-food ban may have unintended consequences. Without the threat of incoming competition, existing fast-food restaurants in south L.A. can feel free to raise their prices; fast-food restaurants have already done this in cities with high barriers to entry, such as New York. Additionally, an influx of sit-down restaurants could increase the average price of a meal in south L.A., since sit-down establishments are generally more costly than fast-food outlets. On the other hand, fast-food prices might also go down in response to the arrival of costlier sit-down restaurants, thus encouraging residents to forego the sit-down restaurant and eat more of the cheaper fast food. Indeed, there is no guarantee that additional supermarkets and fresh-food restaurants will cause south L.A. residents to abandon fast food.
According to David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine, the average meal at a sit-down chain restaurant is generally less healthy than a comparable fast-food meal.
The ban implies that fast food is a major cause of obesity; yet the food served at sit-down restaurants, particularly the chain restaurants most likely to enter south L.A., often has significantly higher calorie and fat counts than the food served at restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. According to David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men’s Health magazine, the average meal at a sit-down chain restaurant is generally less healthy than a comparable fast-food meal. As Zinczenko writes, the food at a sit-down chain “is actually considerably worse for you than the often-maligned fast-food fare. In fact, our menu analysis of 24 national chains revealed that the average entree at a sit-down restaurant contains 867 calories, compared with 522 calories in the average fast-food entree. And that’s before appetizers, sides, or desserts—selections that can easily double your total calorie intake.”
Because the definition of “fast food” is somewhat vague, restaurants like Marie Callender’s (which specializes in pies and hearty fare) can still open, yet mom-and-pop take-out restaurants and other local establishments can still be banned. Exceptions have also been carved out for “healthy” fast-food restaurants like Subway, which does have its six subs under six grams of fat but also serves several 12-inch sandwiches with more than 1,000 calories.
The major problem with the fast-food ban is that it doesn’t address the real causes of obesity: a lack of personal responsibility and a lack of motivation to stay healthy. Unfortunately, a recent wave of obesity lawsuits has targeted the fast-food industry and ignored any concept of personal responsibility. To their credit, some U.S. lawmakers have tried to prevent such litigation. The “Cheeseburger Bill” (the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act) was designed to protect restaurants from obesity lawsuits. It passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate in 2005. The Bush administration has supported the federal Cheeseburger Bill and also backed similar legislation at the state level, arguing that “food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person’s consumption of legal, unadulterated food and a person’s weight gain or obesity.” California has not passed any such legislation, leaving fast-food restaurants in the Golden State vulnerable to obesity lawsuits.
If the L.A. City Council wants to encourage healthier eating in low-income communities, incentives and disincentives would be a more reasonable and effective path. Fried foods could be taxed, or fast food in general could be taxed (though this tax would be just as regressive as the ban). But banning fast-food restaurants will not solve the obesity problem, nor will any other laws that scapegoat the food industry and ignore personal responsibility.
Sara Wexler is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by The Bergman Group/ Darren Wamboldt.