A Ban on Fast-Food Restaurants Isn’t Enough to Solve the Obesity Crisis
It’s been seven years since the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that banned opening new fast-food restaurants in a swath of the city where 700,000 people live. The area the ban focused on, South Los Angeles, is historically both low-income and African American, and 63 percent of residents were overweight or obese in 2008, when the law went into affect.
Although it wasn’t as divisive as the so-called Big Gulp ban that Mayor Michael Bloomberg would later try (and ultimately fail) to implement in New York City, the ordinance was likely the first time a city targeted the food industry with the health and well-being of its residents in mind.
The problem is, it appears to have failed. According to a new study conducted by the Santa Monica–based RAND Corporation, the obesity rate in neighborhoods covered by the ban is now 75 percent. The rate climbed from 57 percent to 58 percent in Los Angeles County as a whole.
“What has changed? Well, nothing,” Roland Sturm, lead author of the study, which was published the Thursday in journal Social Science and Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times.
RAND has taken a critical view of the ordinance since it first passed. A 2009 paper, also cowritten by Sturm, questioned the logic of the ordinance. He and coauthor Deborah Cohen noted that there are more fast-food restaurants per capita in other parts of the region—60 percent more in Los Angeles County on the whole.
“We never believed it was going to be an overnight situation where all of a sudden the community was going to be healthy,” City Councilmember Bernard Parks told the Los Angeles Times.
Groups including the nonprofit Community Health Council say the restriction has resulted in a 3 percent drop in obesity rates. But this wouldn’t be the first time a narrowly focused solution to a systemic community health problem failed. From South Los Angeles to the Bronx, studies have continually suggested that holistic solutions are needed to solve problems like obesity—not just more grocery stores or fewer fast-food restaurants.