City governments have ramped up their battles against obesity in controversial ways in the last decade. Some efforts, such as New York City’s calorie counts and Oklahoma City’s collective diet, have been seen as at least modestly successful. Others, like Los Angeles’s 2008 ban on new fast food restaurants, may have been a wash.
A new study looks at the effects of Los Angeles’s ban, which was hotly debated at the time, and concludes it has had no measurable effect in improving diets or cutting down on obesity. The ban’s value, writes lead author and RAND Corporation economist Ronald Sturm, was purely “symbolic.” Previously, other cities had limited fast food outlets in certain neighborhoods, but L.A.’s was the first time the decision was tied to public health.
Los Angeles’s 2008 zoning regulation prohibited the permitting of new “stand alone” fast food chains in and around South Los Angeles, a lower-income part of the city where the obesity rate was reported to be more than double richer areas. But since the ban, the data show that obesity rates in the areas affected by the law have not only failed to improve, they’ve actually increased faster than in other parts of the city. (The only exception: Soda consumption dropped, but it also dropped in all of the city.)
There are a few factors that could explain the failure. First, the law did nothing to eliminate the prevalence of unhealthy food choices in the area. That part of the city was already overrun by fast food chains, which comprised nearly half of the 900 restaurants in the area. And the ban on new fast food was narrow. For example, small takeout joints that were part of strip malls might still be allowed, and even larger chains could open if they were part of another facility.
Second, just because you stop more fast food from coming to an area doesn’t mean that healthy eating choices are going to replace them or that the problem of “food deserts” will be solved. And third, many other factors go into diet: It’s hard to stop eating readily available and cheap fast food if you’re working two jobs to support your family. Study author Sturm, who is a long-time skeptic of some policy measures to reduce obesity, told NPR that food prices matter more than food availability.
In other words, changing eating patterns would be easier if healthier foods were cheaper than high-fat, high-calorie fast foods, and not the other way around.