Childhood Obesity Report Calls For Government Regulations to Limit Access to ‘Unhealthy’ Restaurant Chains

September 1, 2009 - 5:24 PM
A newly released report by the Institute for Medicine and the National Research Council details strategies for local governments to combat what it calls an epidemic of childhood obesity, including enacting zoning and land-use regulations that would "restrict fast food establishments near school grounds and public playgrounds."

Eduardo J. Sanchez is vice president and chief medical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas and is chairman of the committee that released a report on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to give local government tools for fighting childhood obesity. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

(CNSNews.com) -  A newly released report by the Institute for Medicine and the National Research Council details strategies for local governments to combat what it calls an epidemic of childhood obesity, including enacting zoning and land-use regulations that would “restrict fast food establishments near school grounds and public playgrounds.”
 
The report, “Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity,” was compiled by the Committee on Childhood Obesity Prevention Actions for Local Governments, a committee of health care professionals, academics, and policy makers. The report offers nine “action strategies” for healthy eating and three “actions for increasing physical activities.”
 
The report, unveiled at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington on Tuesday, also advises local governments to impose higher taxes “to discourage consumption of foods and beverages that have minimal nutritional value” and to mandate that chain restaurants (those with 20 or more stores) provide caloric information on menus.
 
When asked by CNSNews.com if regulating where restaurants can be built could harm communities by taking away jobs, committee members said the report presents “options” and that studies show that fast food restaurants are disproportionately located in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
 
“We tried to provide a broad menu of options in this report,” said Eduardo J. Sanchez, chairman of the committee and vice president and chief medical officer with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas. “A menu that local communities can have a look at and determine what might work best in their community.

Adewale Troutman, a member of the committee that compiled the report and the director of Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness in Louisville, Ky., said ending childhood obesity was about changing culture. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

“We also realized that there is a balance to be achieved in the food environment side of this discussion,” Sanchez said. “Making sure that healthy foods are available and are consumed and thinking about how to reduce consumption of less healthy foods.”
 
“One of things that has been shown in studies all across the country is that there is a proliferation of certain types of restaurants in certain neighborhoods,” said Adewale Troutman, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness in Louisville, Ky.
 
“If you look at areas where the socio-economic status is a bit low or predominately African American and Latino and you compare it to other communities that are more affluent, with different racial and ethnic mix,” he said, “you’ll find that there is an overwhelming propensity for the location of fast food restaurants in those communities.”
 
Troutman cited as an example of local government control on restaurants a moratorium put in place by the Los Angeles City Council that bans any new fast food restaurants from being opened anywhere in East Los Angeles, one of the poorest areas of the city.
 
Some of the other strategies listed in the report for “healthy eating” include:
 
-     Mandate and implement strong nutrition standards for foods and beverages available in government-run or regulated after-school programs, recreation centers, parks and child care facilities (which includes limiting access to calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods).
-     Implement a tax strategy to discourage consumption of foods and beverages that have minimal nutritional value, such as sugar-sweetened beverages.
-     Promote “breastfeeding friendly communities” and adopt practices in hospitals modeled after those used by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization.
-    Adopt land use and zoning policies that restrict fast food establishments near school grounds and public playgrounds.
 
The goals for increasing physical activities to prevent childhood obesity in the report include making outside areas where children play, such as parks and playgrounds, safer and more easily accessible and “mandating minimum play space, physical equipment, and duration of play in pre-school, after-school and child-care programs.”

Toni Yancey, a professor of health services at UCLA's School of Public Health, said low-income and minority neighborhoods are targeted by fast food restaurants. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

Toni Yancey, professor of health services at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health, said that advertising is skewed in some American neighborhoods when it comes to messages about food and fitness.
 
“In lower-income communities and African American and Latino communities there is more advertising for unhealthy food choices and less advertising for healthy food choices,” Yancey said. “And on top of that – and this hasn’t been discussed much or even documented before to my knowledge – there is more advertising for physically inactive services and goods.”
 
“So, for instance, (advertising) for films and automated transportation, cars and so forth, or video games,” Yancey said. “That’s also being pushed disproportionately in certain communities.”
 
Troutman said ending childhood obesity, however, will take more than the findings of the report.
 
“This is about culture change,” Troutman said. “Every sector of society needs to be involved in this culture change.”
 
The full text of the report is available at the National Academies Press Web site for $32.40.