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Lessons From L.A.'s Failed Fast-Food Ban

After Los Angeles banned the expansion of fast-food places in some parts, obesity actually increased.

In 2008, the city prohibited the opening or expansion of fast-food restaurants in a part of South L.A. that had high obesity rates.
In 2008, the city prohibited the opening or expansion of fast-food restaurants in a part of South L.A. that had high obesity rates.
In the fight against obesity, urban leaders have proposed everything from menu-labeling to soda bans to prohibitions on trans fats. So far only a scant number of bans or restrictions have been implemented across the country, making it difficult to gauge policies’ effectiveness. But that’s slowly starting to change.

One of the most sweeping initiatives -- and, it turns out, one of the least successful -- was Los Angeles’ fast-food ban. The 2008 measure prohibited the opening or expansion of fast-food restaurants in a part of South L.A. that had high obesity rates. “Ultimately, this ordinance is about providing choices -- something that is currently lacking in our community,” Jan Perry, the councilmember who proposed the ban, said at the time. (Perry was term-limited out in 2013.)

Despite intense lobbying from the restaurant industry and national news stories questioning government overreach, the measure was implemented.

But obesity rates in South L.A. didn’t go down, they went up. And they did so faster than in other parts of Los Angeles. The results are detailed in a recent study led by the RAND Corp. and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. The ban “may have symbolic value,” said Roland Sturm, RAND senior economist and the lead author of the study, in a press release,“but it has had no measurable impact in improving diets or reducing obesity.”

Much of the ban’s failure has to do with how the ordinance was crafted. For one thing, it only applied to freestanding chain restaurants, so new fast-food joints were still free to open in strip malls or other shared spaces. It also didn’t affect existing restaurants, other than prohibiting new drive-thru windows and additional floor space. Since the ban, fast-food chains have opened at about the same rate in South L.A. as in other parts of the city. “There was a complete disconnect between the justification and the policy,” wrote Sturm and researcher Aiko Hattori.

The move was intended to be part of a larger effort that included attracting more grocery stores and farmers markets -- that hasn’t yet happened, City Councilman Bernard Parks, who co-authored the zoning ordinance, told the Los Angeles Times. In South L.A., as in many other low-income neighborhoods, there just aren’t many options for healthy, affordable food. 

To understand what policies do curb obesity, a team of Drexel University researchers completed an exhaustive review of studies evaluating various public health experiments. They found that policies that improve the nutritional quality of foods, such as trans-fat bans or limits on the availability of sugary products, can be effective. The research showed less promising results for building supermarkets in underserved areas and setting nutritional information requirements.

The Los Angeles ordinance represents one of the rare local policy interventions specifically targeting unhealthy foods. In 2013, a few Austin, Texas, city council members wanted to study the possibility of banning fast-food restaurants in designated zones where children congregate. That proposal was voted down. Last year, a court struck down New York City’s high-profile attempt to ban oversized sodas. More recently, though, Berkeley, Calif., voters approved a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, making it the first U.S. city to pass a punitive tax on sodas.

The bottom line is that the fight against obesity will require a more comprehensive solution than imposing a single ban or a new tax. “There’s not going to be any one policy that fixes the problem,” says Susan Babey, who studies obesity and dietary behavior at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “It’s going to have to be a set of policies that address a number of issues.”

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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