Friday, June 23, 2006

Daily News Zones Out: From Obesity to Opacity

In today's NY Daily News the paper editorializes against the suggestion, advanced by Health Committee Chair Joel Rivera, that city zoning law be used to control the proliferation of fast food joints in neighborhoods where childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportion. The councilman's proposal earned him a "Knucklehead Award" from the paper's pontificators.

In this case, however the shoe, or should we say the dunce cap, is being worn by the wrong party. In their efforts to belittle the proposal the News' erudite crew resorts to ridicule:"Lose Your Butt Bill," "Slaw and Order candidate," etc. The epidemic of obesity, and its attendant diseases, is no laughing matter. In one estimate 365,000 deaths a year can be attributed to obesity, making the disease second only to tobacco use as a killer in this country.

We can ask the smug editorialists, just what has the Daily News done to be part of the solution for a health crisis that is plaguing the kinds of neighborhoods that are represented by Mr. Rivera? The unfortunate answer is- absolutely nothing. Instead of being proactive and helpful the paper's rhetoric degenerates into sarcasm.

What makes the ridicule even more misplaced is the ignorance that the editorial page exhibits on the entire zoning/obesity questioning. You see, the musings on the subject do not originate from the solitary ruminations of Rivera but, instead, are drawn directly from the cutting edge scientific research being done in public health at-hold onto your seats-The Center for Law and the Public's Health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

So before we kill the messenger here isn't appropriate to first question all of the highbrow folks that are being partially funded by our own mayor's largesse? When we look at the work being done in the field we find that there are a lot of serious researchers who believe that zoning can be used as a tool to control obesity (See "The Use of Zoning To Restrict Fast Food Outlets: A Potential Strategy to Combat Obesity, October, 2005). Not only that, the mayor's health commissioner certainly hasn't ruled the zoning tool out.

Now the News might not agree with the researchers' conclusions but it needs to become better informed on the subject before the lapse into ridicule makes them look, well, ridiculous. If they review the literature they might discover that the historical foundation for all zoning is the protection of the public's health and safety. Not only that, zoning is already being used in other parts of the country for the purpose that Councilman Rivera suggests.

The obesity epidemic (which costs New York state $3.5 billion just in Medicaid payments) and the concomitant health crisis is probably the most important public health challenge we face in this country. Fast food is not the only contributing factor but it certainly plays its part. The fast food industry needs to wake up and become part of the solution-and so does the Daily News. If this doesn't happen than more punitive measures will be forthcoming. The handwriting is on the wall and you don't have to be a seer to read it.