In an effort to combat obesity among residents in one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously last month to put in place a one-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in the South Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles, West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park community planning areas.
The action of the city council needed the mayor’s signature to become law, and that had not happened as of this writing. But the moratorium is believed to be the first of its kind by a major city to protect the health of its citizens. And apparently the city has reason to be alarmed about rising obesity rates among the poor. Research suggests that 30 percent of adults in the south Los Angeles area are obese, compared to 19 percent for the metropolitan area as a whole. The affluent Westside reports only a 14.1 percent obesity rate, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
City officials said the action was intended to give the city time to attract restaurants that serve healthier food. Bernard Parks, a city councilman, said, “Our communities have an extreme shortage of quality foods.” The council said the moratorium is designed as a “stop-gap measure” that will allow the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee time to study the effects of fast-food restaurants as they pertain to community design, pedestrian activity, traffic and other important urban planning issues. It also will allow time to attract grocery stores and restaurants to the area.
The moratorium would only affect stand-alone restaurants, not establishments located in malls or strip shopping centers, and defines fast-food restaurants as those that do not offer table service and provide a limited menu of pre-prepared or quickly heated food in disposable wrapping.
This recent action by the Los Angeles City Council is not the first attempt by American cities to combat obesity and public health through regulations. Nearly two years ago, New York City famously banned trans fats, a measure that ordered restaurants to eliminate artificial trans fats from all of their foods by July of this year.
But the New York ban on specific food ingredients is quite different from the proposed Los Angeles regulation that effectively prevents a legal business from even opening its doors. This is a slippery slope.
Any law preventing the opening of a new restaurant, when other, similar restaurants are already operating in the Los Angeles area, would seem to invite a rush of lawsuits. And at least some of the legal questions involved would not appear to be all that different from the one recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, struck down the District of Columbia’s 32-year-old ban on handguns. The ruling was the court’s first ever addressing the core ambiguity of the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The interpretation of what the framers of the Constitution intended with that amendment has, of course, been hotly debated for decades. And the court’s split decision further suggests that differences of opinion exist on the subject.
But one might logically argue that if it is the constitutional right of law-abiding Americans to carry a handgun on the streets of Washington, D.C., shouldn’t those same citizens have the right to open a fast-food restaurant in a major city?
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry said, “This ordinance is in no way attempting to tell people what to eat but rather responding to the need to attract sit-down restaurants, full-service grocery stores and healthy food alternatives.”
The intentions of Perry and the other city council members may be to foster the public good, but if such an anti-business regulation is allowed to stand, what is next? Would it then be logical to ban businesses that supply fast-food restaurants with their products? And then, the businesses (farmers and ranchers) that raise and produce those food products?
A slippery slope, indeed.