Zoning bans for fast food outlets have been tried before. And failed.
In central London, which has a high density of primary and secondary schools, this would mean a de facto ban on new outlets opening almost everywhere. A licence to sell takeaways would suddenly become valuable. Standard economic theory suggests that restricting supply would lead to higher prices, poorer quality and reduced choice for consumers. It would effectively protect incumbent businesses from competition.
This anti-competitive measure is said to be justified on ‘public health’ grounds to tackle obesity, particularly among children. It is assumed that children who have easy access to fast food near their home or on the way to school will eat more of it and become fat.
But assumptions are not enough. When I started looking at the evidence, I assumed that there would be maybe a dozen studies looking specifically at the issue. In fact, there are 74, and most of them do not support zoning bans. Of the 74 studies, only fifteen (20%) found a positive association between the proximity and/or density of fast food outlets and obesity/body weight. Forty-four (60%) found no positive association, of which eleven (15%) found evidence that living near a fast food outlet reduced the risk of putting on weight. Fifteen (20%) produced a mix of positive, negative and (mostly) null results which, taken together, point to no particular conclusion. Studies which suggest that living near a fast food outlet increases the risk of obesity are therefore outnumbered 3 to 1 by those which find no such association.
The evidence that fast food availability causes obesity among children is even weaker. Of the 39 studies that looked specifically at children, only six (15%) found a positive association while twenty-six (67%) found no effect. Seven (18%) produced mixed results. Of the studies that found no association, five (13%) found an inverse relationship between fast food outlets and childhood obesity. Two-thirds of the studies found no evidence for the hypothesis that living near fast food outlets increases the risk of childhood obesity and there are nearly as many studies suggesting that it reduces childhood obesity as there are suggesting the opposite.
Furthermore, there is real world evidence showing that such policies do not work. In July 2008, a temporary ban on new fast food outlets was imposed on South Los Angeles and its 700,000 residents after the city council became concerned with high levels of obesity in the area. When the policy was evaluated in 2015 it was found that obesity rates had risen faster in the part of the city that had the ‘zoning ban’ than in the rest of Los Angeles.
All of this evidence is in the public domain. There have been six evidence reviews conducted in the last decade. None of them concluded that the proximity or number of fast food outlets in an area has an influence on obesity. And yet organisations like Public Health England and the British Medical Association continue to support zoning bans based on nothing more than a hunch.
So much for evidence-based policy. It would be debatable whether zoning bans could be justified even if they were associated with lower rates of obesity. Banning businesses from selling safe and legal food products is an extreme measure that is likely to have an adverse affect on consumers. Any positive impact on health would have to be well proven and profound before being seriously considered. But a large body of evidence strongly suggests that it will have no beneficial effect whatsoever. It is all downside and no upside. Politicians at the local and national level should stop basing policy on intuition and look at the facts.
- ‘Fast food outlets and obesity: What is the evidence?‘ by Chris Snowdon