Exiling the Happy Meal
Los Angeles Lawmakers Want to Escalate
The War on Obesity (And Fast Food)
By SARAH MCBRIDE
July 22, 2008; Page A14
Despite its health-crazy reputation, parts of Los Angeles are plagued by obesity rates that rival any city in America. Now, the city may join a growing roster of local governments aiming to put their residents on diets by cracking down on the fast-food industry.
In an effort to fight obesity, Los Angeles is proposing to ban fast food restaurants in one neighborhood, tapping into a tougher attitude toward fast food.
Jan Perry, a Los Angeles city-council member, is spearheading legislation that would ban new fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC from opening in a 32-square-mile chunk of the city, including her district. The targeted area is already home to some 400 fast-food restaurants, she says, possibly contributing to high obesity rates there -- 30% of adults, compared with about 21% in the rest of the city. Nationally, 25.6% of adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While some cities have bans on new fast-food establishments, they typically are for aesthetic reasons or to protect local businesses. Ms. Perry's initiative seems to be a rare instance in which a major city brings health issues into restaurant zoning. The fast-food ban would last a year, although Ms. Perry hopes to make it permanent. On Tuesday, a committee will make a recommendation on the measure before sending it on to the full city council for a vote.
With the ordinance, Los Angeles is tapping into a tougher attitude toward fast food that is emerging at city halls around the country. Cities have begun banning ingredients, regulating menu information and now dictating whether restaurants are healthy enough to open in their communities. Advocates say the measures are crucial in the fight against obesity, diabetes and other diseases and health conditions. Foes say the rules go too far, violating important freedoms.
"It's very much the example of a nanny state," says Alan Hoffenblum, a Republican lobbyist in Los Angeles.
The restaurant industry says the measures place too much blame at its door.
"We have a fundamental problem with government stepping in and treating restaurants as if they are engaged in activity that is at the root of the obesity epidemic," says Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association. He blames the epidemic on a web of factors, including sedentary lifestyles and lack of nutrition education.
While most local legislation applies to chain restaurants, typically defined as restaurants with more than 10 or 15 branches in the area or state, the ordinance in Los Angeles specifically targets fast food. It defines fast food as having characteristics including "a limited menu" and "food served in disposable wrapping or containers."
In New York City, a law kicked in earlier this year requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on the main menu right above the counter. San Francisco plans to implement a similar regulation later this year. In both cities, the restaurant industry is suing to try to block the calorie-disclosure rules; in New York, appeals-court judges allowed the city to proceed with the program while they consider the case.
The calorie-posting rules come on the heels of a ban on coronary-clogging artificial transfats, or fats with added hydrogen, in New York City restaurants. Many chains have already removed transfats from their kitchens. Now, copycat legislation is popping up around the country. A ban in Boston goes into effect in September; in Baltimore, a ban takes effect next year. California legislators have sent a bill to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would remove transfats from restaurants and bakeries statewide.
Government officials say they must attack all causes of obesity. In New York, city officials have said the new information on menus will save people from obesity and diabetes. The ordinance pending in Los Angeles appears particularly tough, because it would halt the opening of any fast-food restaurant in a large part of the city. But it might not be the last such measure. The Los Angeles planning department says it has had calls from several cities asking for copies of the pending ordinance. Already, "the influence is there," says Faisal Roble, the city planner who drafted the ordinance.
Many area residents say they support the ban -- even those who patronize the restaurants regularly. "It's a good idea," particularly for children, says Rafael Escobar, 69 years old, as he bites into a McDonald's sausage breakfast burrito. He thinks the move might encourage other types of food businesses to come into the neighborhood.
"There's not that many alternatives," says Hector Rodriguez, a bus driver toting a bag from the Del Taco chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants. He says he frequently stops along the strip of fast-food restaurants lining Figueroa Boulevard to pick up a snack or lunch. "If there were other choices, like a salad place or a supermarket, it would be better," he says.
But Brian Mason, a student stopping off at McDonald's, says a ban on further fast-food restaurants will do little to address underlying health problems. A better solution, Mr. Mason says, is nutrition education. And several patrons, including families with children, say they will keep coming, their young children in tow, no matter what other choices a fast-food ban might bring.
Nationally, the restaurant industry is taking different approaches to the situation. One is basic: introducing healthier menu items and voluntarily removing transfats to meet customers' demands and in the hope of heading off legislation.
But where it views local legislation as going too far, the industry hasn't hesitated to sue. In New York and San Francisco, it is fighting the new calorie-posting rules partly on the grounds that they are violations of free speech, because they force businesses to articulate government messages. New York has already retooled its requirements once, because a judge last year agreed with restaurateurs that the proposed rule conflicted with federal regulations.
In Los Angeles, the industry is taking a more conciliatory approach. "There is a point where we have to accept a reality, whether we like it or not, and try to make it as workable as possible," says Mr. Condie of the restaurant association. For example, the industry successfully lobbied for a proviso that will allow for exceptions to the ban if fast-food restaurants meet certain conditions, like forgoing the construction of a drive-through window and proving there isn't a rival fast-food restaurant within 750 feet.
Councilman Ed Reyes, part of whose district would be affected by the ban, says he expects many complaints from fast-food owners about their right to do business in the neighborhood. He is prepared with counterarguments. "Health and social issues are the overriding issues, in my mind," he says. "It's not too different to how we regulate liquor stores."
Ms. Perry, the council member leading the legislation, says she sees the measure as just one part of a multipronged effort to fight obesity, including building parks to encourage exercise, encouraging more grocery stores to come into the neighborhood, boosting nutrition education and improving health care. Reining in fast food "is just one factor, but as an elected official, it's my prerogative" to work on all fronts, she says.
"This town needs an enima."
Only protecting the people that can't protect themselves. Well they voted for her, they deserve her.
Jan Perry, a Los Angeles city-council member, is spearheading legislation that would ban new fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC from opening in a 32-square-mile chunk of the city, including her district.
Jan, I have a double quater pounder ready for you, I bet you will like it
all of a sudden Demolition Man comes to mind
NYC banned trans fats last year the fries now taste like shit
This big brother fascist crap makes me want to vomit far worse than fast food.