The Menu Police of L.A.

Councilwoman wants ban on new fast food restaurants after obesity outbreak.

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 12, 2007 — -- Jack, Carl, Wendy, Mac and some other members of their fast food posse may soon be having their Los Angeles privileges revoked, but the plan to ban new fast food restaurants in parts of the city is getting mixed reviews.

City Councilwoman Jan Perry says her south Los Angeles district of mostly working class, ethnic residents has a serious weight problem.

"The rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are quite high," Perry said, "and you look around and what do you see? You don't see a lot of healthy food options."

What you do see, she describes, are blocks full of "quick-serve" eateries peddling high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods.

Perry has drafted a proposal that would put a two-year moratorium on new fast food restaurants in her district.

Perry says she consulted public health experts, food companies and restaurant organizations for input, but some food industry representatives say the proposal makes them nervous.

"When you start restricting one type of business, what's next?" said Kearsten Shepherd of the California Restaurant Association.

"It can possibly send the wrong message to the business community as a whole and have a negative affect on the economy of those neighborhoods," Shepherd said.

The fast food industry's contribution to the economy of Los Angeles neighborhoods is apparently no small potatoes.

"According to a recent study, McDonald's creates more than 38,660 jobs and about $752.4 million in spending in Los Angeles County, representing a contribution of $20 million in taxes and licenses," said McDonald's franchisee Lindsay Hughes in a published statement.

But the cost to the economy of the nation's so-called "obesity epidemic" is raising red flags throughout the country.

"Businesses, employers and individuals are screaming about the cost of health care," said Robert K. Ross, head of the California Endowment, a foundation that supports projects designed to improve health and health care.

"We know that fighting obesity, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses is costing our economy hundreds of billions of dollars," Ross said.

But what about personal responsibility? Personal choice? Many fast food outlets now offer salads, fruits, low-fat yogurt and grilled chicken in addition to the fried and made-to-order items.

Perry and Ross argue the community's environment goes a long way to limit and condition choices and bad health habits.

"You have generations of individuals and families defining tasty foods by whether it is salty and fatty, so a lot of this has to be undone," said Ross.

"So both have to happen: I think we need fast food outlets that are providing people with responsible choices that they can make money on, but also limiting the sheer volume of fast food restaurants where the majority of foods sold are unhealthy."

"When you have a community where people don't have choices and the only choice they have is a fast food restaurant. Then they are conditioned to believe that fast food is the only way to eat," said Perry.

"I am trying to change that paradigm and I think we have the right to do that."

So, what about the legal right of a city to legislate the amount of fat, sugar and salt allowed within city limits?

"It is an intrusive regulatory move, well-intentioned, but certainly signals the fact that whoever makes these proposals doesn't see any boundary to the limits of government controls," said University of Southern California legal scholar George Lefcoe.

Still, Lefcoe, an expert in land use and real estate law, admits the courts have been sympathetic to the evolution of land-use law as a tool for social engineering.

"We now have a fair number of instances where land-use controls are used for broadly conceived social objectives that had nothing to do with the actual use of the ground," said Lefcoe.

Take the war against smoking that has consumed the nation for two decades. Remember a world with smoking sections on planes, movie theaters and restaurants?

Today the success of legal battles to restrict cigarette smoking has even stretched to the water's edge where smoking is banned on some public beaches and city streets.

Advocates argue the government's role in restricting a personal preference with a huge downside for health actually supports and encourages many people to stop smoking — or to never start.

Where one might see just social engineering, some lawmakers may see billions in health-care costs for taxpayers.

"You want public policies that encourage the right kind of individual decision making and limiting the availability of fast food restaurants may in fact be an important weapon against this out-of-control epidemic," said Ross.

While the gate may go down for more fast food restaurants in Perry's district, the welcome mat is being rolled out for restaurants and grocery stores that will offer her constituents a wide variety of food choices.

Perry says the giant British grocery chain Tesco and Home Town Buffet have expressed interest in setting up shop in her district.

Still, Southern Cal's Lefcoe wonders how Los Angeles would propose to enforce a moratorium on restaurants that serve food that is bad for your health.

"In the end, what you've got to do is not only regulate in a general way, you have to monitor the menu," said Lefcoe.

"What if the menu changes? Maybe down the road the fresh juice guys decide they can do better with high-fat ice cream."