Seven years ago, Los Angeles made national headlines with a novel attempt to reduce obesity in South L.A. by banning new fast-food restaurants.
But a new study found the effort has not achieved its intended goal.
A Rand Corp. report released Thursday says that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in L.A., but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance, including Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park.
The study also found fast-food consumption went up in South L.A. as well as across the county during that time.
"What has changed? Well, nothing," said Roland Sturm, lead author of the study and a senior economist at Rand, who called the restriction symbolic.
The report contradicts statements from the nonprofit Community Health Councils, which fought to uphold the restriction by citing county figures showing a 3% drop in obesity.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who co-wrote the zoning restriction with former Councilwoman Jan Perry, said he wasn't surprised that the Rand report says it didn't have any health effect. But he maintained that it was a vital first step in reducing the number of fast-food restaurants and breaking unhealthy eating habits in the region.
"We never believed it was going to be an overnight situation where all of a sudden the community was going to be healthy," he said.
Parks said the ordinance was meant to be part of a larger strategy that includes bringing grocery stores and farmers markets to replace fast-food restaurants, but that part has been more difficult to accomplish.
The Los Angeles law marked the first time a big city had succeeded in taking on fast-food restaurants in an attempt to improve its residents' health. (Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt in 2012 to ban super-size sodas was struck down by the courts.) The South L.A. restriction was unanimously approved by the City Council, despite opposition from the restaurant industry.
The law aimed to stem high rates of obesity and diabetes that afflict African American areas, specifically South Los Angeles. Though the regulation applies only to 32 square miles of the city, it affects an area with more than 700,000 people, which the researchers point out would make it one of the 20 biggest cities in the country.
Supported by a grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Rand study found that the share of new restaurants belonging to fast-food chains was no different in South L.A. than in the rest of the county after 2008.
The zoning rule was very specific — applying only to stand-alone restaurants with limited menus, items prepared in advance or prepared quickly, no table orders and disposable containers — and therefore didn't target many of the places that serve unhealthy food.
Fast-food restaurants that shared space in strip malls, for example, were unrestricted. The Rand study found that 17 new fast-food restaurants from large chains opened in the area from 2008 to 2012, and none of them were was a stand-alone.
The study also found that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people in South L.A. who were obese or overweight increased from 63% to 75%, while the obesity rate in the rest of the county increased from 57% to 58%. The analysis is based on data from the California Health Interview Survey conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Otis Wright, a minister at West Los Angeles Church of God in Christ, sat in a corner of a Burger King in Baldwin Hills on Wednesday afternoon with two buddies, sipping coffee and chowing down on chicken nuggets. Wright said he was unaware of the fast-food restriction but said he was not surprised that the data raised questions about its effect on the health of residents. He said critics fail to see the time-saving role that fast-food restaurants play in this working-class community.
"It's a convenient way to eat when you are moving around — conducting business and for a quick dinner," he said. "It might not be the most nutritional, but it's fast and cheap."
Wright said he frequents fast-food restaurants several times a week because they provide a clean environment and allow him to have leisurely conversations.
"They are wholesome and fill a spot," he said.
Gwendolyn Flynn, policy director for nutrition resources at Community Health Councils, disagreed that the fast-food regulation was ineffective.
She pointed to data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health that found that from 2009 to 2013, the percentage of people in South L.A. who were obese dropped slightly, from 35.4% to 32.7%.
"Let's just give it a little more time," Flynn said. "These are behaviors that have developed over their life span."
Researchers agree that even without an empirical effect, policies can start conversations that change societal norms.
Flynn said she has noticed that at community meetings in South L.A., there is often fruit and water among the pastries and soda. "That's huge," she said.
The Rand study also found a countywide drop in soda consumption. The decrease was slightly greater in South L.A., but the difference was not statistically significant.
Over the last several years, more research has focused on the social factors that affect health, such as where people live, how much money they make, and how close they are to places that serve healthy food. Studies evaluating the increase in obesity have found that the food that is available in a neighborhood can directly affect what people eat.
The Rand study, however, shows how hard it can be to translate that research into effective policy.
Valerie Ruelas, director of the Community Diabetes Initiatives at USC, said that what people eat is based on a complicated mix of behavior, preferences, education, location, access and other factors. She was not surprised that the L.A. policy had little effect on people's eating habits and obesity rates, according to the Rand study.
"You're not going to find the one pill that's going to solve all the problems," Ruelas said.