Politics & Policy

London’s Mayor Cracks Down on Fish and Chips

London mayor Sadiq Khan (Reuters photo: Neil Hall)
More government regulation won’t solve the global childhood-obesity epidemic, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from trying.

London mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled his “London Plan” on Wednesday, and, as expected, it took a tough stance against a dangerous threat jeopardizing the health and future of the city’s children. No, it’s not a strategy to protect Londoners from potential terrorist attacks at public festivals this Christmas season. The menace is cellulite and the perp is a cheeseburger.

Khan’s plan would prevent any new fast-food restaurant from opening within 400 meters of a primary or secondary school, fulfilling a campaign pledge he made in 2013. The ban targets “takeaways” that sell food such as fish and chips, pizza, chicken, and other quick bites that are allegedly contributing to London’s childhood-obesity crisis. (Nearly 40 percent of children in London are overweight or obese by the time they finish grade school, and the number of obese eleven-year-olds in the city spiked by 22 percent in the last four years.)

According to the 458-page plan:

There is evidence that regular consumption of energy-dense food from hot food takeaways is associated with weight gain, and that takeaway food is appealing to children. A wide range of health experts recommend restricting the proliferation of hot food takeaways, particularly around schools, in order to help create a healthier food environment.

The mayor is also asking restaurants to make food healthier by using fewer villainous ingredients, and grilling or baking food items instead of frying them: “The Healthier Catering Commitment is a scheme that helps food businesses in London to provide healthier food to their customers. The scheme promotes a reduction in the consumption of fat, salt and sugar, and an increase in access to fruit and vegetables.” (To his credit, Khan is reportedly trying to stop the number of pubs closing in the city each year. Two cheers for that.)

Dr. Yvonne Doyle, regional director at Public Health England, praised the move, telling the London Evening Standard that city streets “are increasingly saturated with takeaways and our school children consume too much unhealthy food and drink on the high streets near schools.”

It’s the latest facile attempt by politicians and self-proclaimed public-health advocates to stop people, especially children, from getting fat. From imposing soda taxes to reforming school-lunch programs to labeling every dimple-causing ingredient in food, the global food police are trying everything to stop — and blaming everyone except the individual for — the world’s obesity epidemic. Michelle Obama made childhood obesity her pet cause for eight years, promoting costly government programs that were supposed to make kids healthier; from 2009 to 2015, the obesity rate among U.S. high school students jumped 17 percent.

It’s the latest facile attempt by politicians and self-proclaimed public-health advocates to stop people, especially children, from getting fat.

“How do we define fast food?” Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise and critic of government nutrition policy, asks me. “Fish is healthy, but fish and chips are not? Meat is healthy, but hamburgers are not? Government nutrition guidelines have done nothing to prevent obesity to date, so there’s no reason to believe that more government intervention will help more. Governments need to get the science right before wading further into more intrusive regulations.”

It’s unlikely Khan’s plan will work, because as any parent will tell you, children (particularly teens) can be quite resourceful when it comes to getting their sugar or salt fix. A few years ago, I visited a large public school in Chicago to write a story about the district’s new “healthy” lunch program. (Since 2011, all 400,000 students who attend Chicago public schools have received a federally subsidized breakfast and lunch, courtesy of Mrs. Obama’s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.) Nearly all the lunch items ended up in the trash, including whole fruit and containers of white milk. (Some kids brought a lunch from home, which was usually a large bag of Hot Cheetos.)

After classes ended, the hungry kids — and their parents — flocked to food carts and trucks parked outside of the school. Vendors sold homemade pork rinds, snow cones, candy, and a variety of other naughty snacks that the children gobbled up. Dozens of convenience stores and cheap restaurants dotted the surrounding neighborhood, offering plenty of other opportunities for the children to gorge. So much for free, whole-grain turkey burgers.

Khan’s plan might actually make the problem worse. In 2008, Los Angeles set up new zoning rules that restrict the opening or expansion of “stand alone” restaurants in low-income areas of the city to combat health problems in those neighborhoods. But according to a 2015 RAND Corporation study, the rules haven’t worked; in fact, after they were implemented, obesity rates for residents living in the targeted neighborhoods grew faster than in other parts of the city: “The South Los Angeles fast food ban may have symbolic value, but it has had no measurable impact in improving diets or reducing obesity,” said Roland Sturm, the lead author of the study. Business owners, who are usually smarter than politicians, figured out a way around the rules by opening smaller food stores or restaurants with limited seating. Shrewd Londoners could find similar loopholes in Khan’s plan, perhaps by building a new restaurant 420 meters away from a school instead of 400.

This may not be the end of Khan’s War on Fat. (Oddly, the mayor also banned advertisements that featured photos of fit women on London’s public-transportation system because they could “pressurise people to conform to unhealthy or unrealistic body images.”) He campaigned on promoting healthy lifestyles such as walking and cycling (a good thing) and is giving out grants to schools so kids can grow their own gardens. Politicians are rarely satisfied with their first strike and it may be a matter of time before the fast-food ban is expanded.

In the meantime, it might not hurt for politicians to emphasize the parental responsibility that is the real key to combating childhood obesity.

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