Monday, June 26, 2006

Will Power, Fast Food and "Common Sense"

The crescendo of ridicule that was generated by Councilman Joel Rivera's trial balloon about using the city's zoning laws to reduce the availability of fast food joints continues. This time it is the acid-tongued Ellis Henican in Friday's Newsday. In what must be considered unintentional irony, the liberal Henican morphed into Nancy Reagen with his injunction to, "Just say no to the jumbo fries."

Henican does ask a series of legitimate questions regarding the overall legality of the proposal and the definition of what exactly qualifies as fast food. He than also points out that there are a whole host of things that government can do-like "smart nutritional education" and "not canceling the phys ed classes in school"-but goes on to pose the following question: "does anyone really believe the answer lies in making colonel Sanders move down the street?

Well, a lot of public health researchers think that zoning is part of a comprehensive approach to the serious public health crisis generated by this country's obesity epidemic. In fact they point out that the most fundamental underpinning of all zoning regulations is public health and safety. Not only that, a great many municipalities have already taken zoning action against fast food, although not for obesity per se, and these ordinances have survived legal challenge.

It doesn't mean that a number of Henican's other suggestions shouldn't also be included in any anti-obesity health policy. In fact, as we have pointed out, Rivera is doing just that in his sponsorship of Dr. Mehmet Oz's Health Corps initiative. Better education should be the main thrust of any policy but the proliferation of fast food establishments, especially in low income areas, is a problem that can be addressed through zoning.

If, as it is in San Francisco, Newport RI, Concord, MA etc, zoning is being invoked against fast food and "formula" restaurants on the grounds of "community character," than it can be used for a legitimate public health purpose in the fight against obesity. It might be a last resort remedy, to be used only in the event that the fast food industry maintains a deaf ear about the obesity epidemic, but it should certainly be examined for its efficacy and be held in abeyance so that the fast fooders know that policy makers are serious.