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More than margins at stake as trans fat mandates, fast-food bans threaten restaurants’ very existence

America’s restaurants are under pressure. This year has witnessed increasing labor and commodity costs paired with waning consumer spending. Wholesale food prices have jumped 15 percent since 2006. July’s federal minimum-wage hike increased labor costs. A slowing economy, job insecurity, falling house values and rising gas prices have prompted would-be restaurant patrons to eat at home.

But remember, the greatest threats are not necessarily the most immediate ones.

Consider California. In a single week, businesses there were hit by three landmark decrees not aimed at commerce, but at public health. First, the state prohibited restaurants from offering customers anything made with oil or shortening containing trans fats. Then, the city of Los Angeles banned businesses from providing plastic shopping bags. But shortening and plastic bags are small potatoes compared to lawmakers’ latest target: entire restaurants.

On July 29th, the L.A. City Council voted to ban “fast-food” restaurants from opening in certain neighborhoods. It only took 13 council members to decide that at least a half-million Angelenos can’t be trusted to make “good” food choices on their own.

L.A. won’t be alone for long. The city’s planning department told The Wall Street Journal that it has received requests for copies of the paternalistic ordinance from several other cities.

“People are literally being poisoned by their diets,” one New York City councilmember told the New York Sun. “A moratorium may help stem the problem.”

For most of the public, the “fast-food” ban seemingly has sprung up out of nowhere. A few of us, however, saw the writing on the wall a long time ago. Since the early ’90s, I have cautioned that this kind of drive-thru prohibition is a natural outgrowth of the propaganda pushed by health officials, nutrition advocacy organizations and weight loss “experts” who narrowly focus on food as the sole culprit behind Americans’ expanding waistlines.

And as the focus becomes more intense, all other factors get crowded out of the discussion.

Even though lawmakers have swallowed the diet industry’s line that food is the bogeyman causing all our problems, the science just isn’t there. Many studies suggest that inactivity, not larger portions, accounts for much of the recent increase in obesity. If that’s the case, all the pro-celery legislation in the world isn’t going to get us back into our high-school jeans. But it will succeed in hitting food producers and restaurants where it hurts: the bottom line.

If food becomes obesity’s main scapegoat, then labor rates, commodity costs and economic strife won’t be the cause of the next string of restaurant closings.

Over the past few decades, elected officials have become increasingly comfortable imposing restrictions on individual rights in order to “protect” the public’s health. Twenty years ago the notion of total smoking bans in bars sounded far-fetched to even the most radical anti-tobacco campaigner. Now individuals can’t light up in restaurants, bars, parks or, in a few cases, even their own homes. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors just voted to prohibit individuals from buying, much less smoking, cigarettes at drug stores.

These “structural interventions,” as the San Francisco Department of Public Health has euphemistically dubbed them, go way beyond educating consumers, veering into the sort of heavy-handed government intrusions that have no place in a free society. Each intrusion lowers the bar for the next “great idea” to be adopted.

There’s a difference between putting calorie counts on menus and putting chains out of business, a difference between advocating healthier dining options and requiring portion size standards for restaurants and a difference between teaching people to eat healthily and treating frosting like a controlled substance.

America is at a tipping point, and each of these issues is on the edge. The food and beverage industry still has time to properly manage shifting perceptions about diet and health. But we don’t have much.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors and management at Nation’s Restaurant News.

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