With obesity in the headlines daily, policymakers want to take quick action, even without clear evidence of what to do. Obesity takes a disproportionate toll on minority populations, especially among African American and Hispanic youth. In media reports on obesity, common themes include blaming a toxic food environment in which poor and minority neighborhoods are overrun with fast-food chains. These outlets are believed to serve unhealthier food than full-service sit-down restaurants and to cause higher obesity rates where they are prevalent. It is also frequently reported that poor and minority neighborhoods are “food deserts” and lack grocery stores, which leads to diets that lack fresh fruit and vegetables and thereby increases obesity rates.
A recent policy influenced by these ideas is the “fast-food ban” in Los Angeles, a one-year ordinance passed in July 2008 that prohibited the establishment of new stand-alone fast-food restaurants in a South Los Angeles area with about 700,000 residents (out of 3.7 million throughout the city of Los Angeles). Articles and guides for planners to address obesity have suggested restrictions on fast-food restaurants.1
However, the Los Angeles ordinance may be the first regulation in a major city that was influenced by health concerns and aims to attract full-service restaurants and grocery stores. Probably for legal reasons, the ordinance included references to neighborhood aesthetics that parallel existing regulations in other cities. Although the final version did not mention obesity, it stated that there “is an over-concentration of fast-food restaurants in the South Los Angeles region,” resulting in “over-concentration of uses which are detrimental to the health and welfare of the people of the community.”2
The term “fast-food restaurant” conjures up the image of franchises with standardized menus, food preparation, decor, external façade, uniforms, and logos. These characteristics have defined previous limits on “formula restaurants” in several municipalities, mainly for aesthetic reasons or to protect local businesses. As long as zoning ordinances are reasonable in substance and are not arbitrarily enforced, they constitute a justifiable exercise of police power and are upheld by the courts. Typical examples of such restrictions are in Calistoga, California (population 5,000) and Port Jefferson, New York (population 8,000). However, the Los Angeles rule is different in scope and justification; it applies only to a portion of the city (South Los Angeles). This area has a population of 700,000, which by itself would rank among the largest twenty cities in the United States—between Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Worth, Texas. The ordinance invokes health reasons for preventing new fast-food establishments from opening or existing ones from expanding, not the reason of maintaining the charm of a historic area.
This paper reviews the empirical evidence for the regulation; assesses whether the regulation is likely to target the primary levers of obesity; and discusses the effectiveness of land-use policies to address obesity. We conclude that the data do not support the premises of the Los Angeles ban and that even if the premises had been correct, this type of trade restraint would not address the health problems of the population.