Lifestyle Economics

Banning fast food outlets is not the answer to tackling obesity


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IEA publishes analysis on the relationship between the availability of fast food outlets and obesity levels

The belief that restricting the availability of fast food will reduce obesity is an assumption that is unsupported by any substantive evidence.

The Institute of Economic Affairs has carried out new analysis of more than 70 empirical studies from across the world over a period of fifteen years, which all look at the relationship between the density and proximity of fast food restaurants and obesity levels. Just under two thirds of these studies found no positive association between obesity levels and fast food availability – of which 15 per cent found evidence that living near a fast food outlet actually reduced the risk of putting on weight.

These findings render the recommendation – endorsed by many policymakers and quangos – to ban the establishment of new fast food outlets near schools baseless. The paper also warns that such interventions could lead to higher prices, poorer quality and reduced choice for consumers, without having any effect on obesity levels.

Key points:

•    There is no evidence to support the assumption that fast food availability causes obesity.

•    Just under two thirds of the studies which look into this relationship find no evidence to corroborate the claim that living near fast food outlets increases obesity among adults and more than two thirds of the studies found no evidence of correlation among children.

•    There are almost as many studies which find that living near a fast food outlet reduced childhood obesity as there are that found the opposite to be true.

•    Fast food zoning will effectively protect incumbent businesses from competition at the expense of the consumer through higher prices, reduced choice and poorer quality.

•    There are a myriad of other factors that could have an effect on obesity levels. The studies that found null or a negative correlation revealed that anything from the number of neighbourhood playgrounds, crime levels, proximity to subway stations, to proximity to and density of convenience stores have some relationship to BMI levels.

•    People who live near fast food outlets are often different in many ways to those who do not in terms of income, social class, age, car ownership and ethnicity. They often have different BMIs too but that does not mean that the availability of fast food outlets is the cause.

•    What about takeaways? None of the studies take into account that many fast food outlets do deliveries. If people are eating food that has been delivered to them, the number of outlets available and their distance from them, is of little significance.

Commenting on the report, author Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:

“Banning new fast food establishments near schools in the hope that it will reduce obesity levels is not an evidence-based policy. It will hamper competition at the expense of consumers for scant health benefit.”

“These policies are driven by pure speculation. The weight of evidence shows that there is no association between obesity and either the proximity to, or density of, fast food outlets around schools, homes and workplaces.”
Notes to editors:

For media enquiries please contact Nerissa Chesterfield, Communications Officer: or 0207 799 8920 or 07791 390 268

To download the report, Fast Food Outlets and Obesity: What’s the evidence?, click here.

In January 2017 the IEA released ‘Obesity and the Public Purse’ which showed the net cost of obesity to the public purse is less than half the amount the government claims it to be. Click here to read more.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems and seeks to provide analysis in order to improve the public understanding of economics.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.

Further IEA Reading: Killjoys: A Critique of Paternalism