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Study: L.A.'s fast-food ban likely won't curb obesity

SANTA MONICA Calif. The year-old moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles is not likely to improve the diet of area residents or reduce obesity, according to a study by the Rand Corp. released Tuesday.

Instead, researchers said focusing on the higher consumption of snack calories among South Los Angeles residents would more likely make a difference.

The study, published online by the journal Health Affairs, took a look at the Interim Control Ordinance, the moratorium on new fast-food restaurants adopted last year by the Los Angeles City Council. It targeted a 32-square-mile section of the city that included parts of South Los Angeles, Crenshaw, University Park, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park.

The Los Angeles ordinance — which was renewed in June and extended to March 14, 2010, when the city council has the option for another six-month extension — has been widely debated in the media as an example of public policy attempts to combat the nation’s growing obesity problem.

Lawmakers behind the Los Angeles ordinance argued that earlier studies showed higher rates of obesity and diabetes in the targeted neighborhoods, compared with rates countywide, and that the region also had more fast-food restaurants than other part of the metropolitan area. The ordinance was accompanied by efforts to attract more full-service restaurants and grocery stores with fresh-food options to the neighborhoods.

The Rand study, however, concluded that preventing more quick-service restaurants from opening in the region likely would not impact the health problems seen there.

“The Los Angeles ordinance may have been an important first by being concerned with health outcomes, but it is not the most promising approach to lowering the high rate of obesity in South Los Angeles,” said Roland Sturm, the study’s lead author and a senior economist at Rand. “It does not address the main differences we see in the food environment between Los Angeles neighborhoods, nor the diet of residents.”

Despite earlier reports of a higher number of fast-food restaurants in the area, researchers said that the neighborhoods included in the Los Angeles zoning restrictions had no more fast-food chain restaurants per capita than any other part of the city — though the area does have more small food stores and other food outlets serving high-calorie snacks and sodas.

Looking at per-capita comparisons, Sturm and study co-author Deborah Cohen found that the targeted area had about 19 fast-food chain restaurants per 100,000 residents in South Los Angeles, while there were 29 per 100,000 people in affluent West Los Angeles and 30 per 100,000 residents for all of Los Angeles County.

There are significantly fewer restaurants of any type per person in South Los Angeles, compared to the county overall.

On the other hand, South Los Angeles had twice the number of small food stores per capita, compared with the county average, and more than three times that of West Los Angeles.

The South Los Angeles neighborhoods also had a lower density of large supermarkets.

By small grocery stores, Sturm said the study refers to stores with only one or two cash registers, where prepared food might be available but the primary inventory is grocery products. In other words, stores where patrons are more likely to pick up a bag of chips, a candy bar or a soda, rather than a meal.

The tendency toward that kind of snacking — particularly soda consumption — appeared to mark the difference between the eating habits of South Los Angeles residents and those who live in other parts of the city, the study found.

In a survey of 1,480 adults countywide included in the report, the researchers found that South Los Angeles residents consumed significantly more “discretionary” calories from sugary or salty snacks and soft drinks, compared with those living in more affluent neighborhoods.

The consumption of fruits and vegetables was about the same within South Los Angeles compared with other neighborhoods, as was physical activity. South Los Angeles residents tended to say they watched more television, but they also were more likely to walk or take public transportation to the market, according to the report.

Residents in both parts of the city tended to report a similar number of dining-out occasions per week, but South Los Angeles residents tended to buy more meals from food carts or mobile vendors and were less likely to go to sit-down restaurants.

The researchers said the goal of attracting more full-service restaurants to South Los Angeles might also be misguided.

“There is a misconception that sit-down restaurants provide ‘healthier’ food and are less likely to lead to obesity,” Sturm said. “However, when we looked at some common offerings, an average lunch sandwich in a sit-down restaurant had more than the combined calories of three Big Mac hamburgers; many dinner choices have over 2,000 calories and cover the energy needs for a full day. And that does not even include possible appetizers or desserts.”

Sturm and Cohen concluded that “health zoning” regulation may be “promising,” but the one-year ordinance in Los Angeles “is not the right application.”

“Of course, it is plausible that fast-food restaurants can contribute to obesity,” the researchers wrote. “Over time, the competition among fast-food outlets has led to the serving of increasingly larger portions of foodÉ although there has been some retreat from this practice more recently. However, the increase in portion size is not unique to fast-food establishments.”

Instead, policy makers should focus on “the frequency and saliency of food cues in the environment, the types of food available, and the portion sizes served" in order to fight obesity, they concluded.

Sturm and Cohen pointed to regulations such as menu labeling and levying fees on stores that sell sugary sodas or beverage taxes as possible solutions. The first phase of California’s menu-labeling requirement went into effect this year, and beverage taxes have been proposed in both San Francisco and New York.

Still, the researchers hailed the Los Angeles fast-food ban as “the first to explicitly recognize the need for regulations to create environments that facilitate better diets and to acknowledge that people’s behavior is not independent of their environment,” the researchers wrote. “Although the actual policy was based on questionable premises, this represents an important conceptual step forward.”

Areport released in September by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council also supported the idea of restricting fast-food restaurants near schools or playgrounds, as well as advocating higher taxes on high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks, and the posting of calorie and other nutrition data on restaurant menus. The report sparked criticism from several in the restaurant industry.

Jan Perry, the Los Angeles city council member behind the fast-food moratorium, said the ordinance was meant to be a “stop-gap measure to give us time to develop permanent strategies to address the need for food and retail diversity in South Los Angeles.”

From the start, one goal of the plan was to prevent freestanding fast-food chains from taking space that might be attractive to casual-dining or larger grocery stores with a wider range of fresh produce.

The ordinance was meant to be “one tool in the toolbox,” she said, noting that her efforts have also included creating incentives to draw more grocery stores and full-service restaurants to the area, as well as the development of farmers markets and improving both parks and non-profit food-and-nutrition programs.

“As the study states, there are numerous convenience stores, very few grocery stores and a very small amount of sit-down, full-service restaurants,” she said. “For this reason the ordinance deals with stand-alone fast-food establishments, since they have a large footprint. Grocery stores also require a large footprint and we are working to prioritize this kind of use so that we have a variety of neighborhood-serving amenities.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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