Obesity and Fast Food

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Janet Currie, Stefano DellaVigna, Enrico Moretti, Vikram Pathania

February 2009


The Effect of Fast Food Restaurants on Obesity
Janet Currie, Columbia University and NBER Stefano DellaVigna, UC Berkeley and NBER Enrico Moretti, UC Berkeley and NBER Vikram Pathania, UC Berkeley

January 2009 Abstract. We investigate the health consequences of changes in the supply of fast food using the exact geographical location of fast food restaurants. Specifically, we ask how the supply of fast food affects the obesity rates of 3 million school children and the weight gain of over 1 million pregnant women. We find that among 9th grade children, a fast food restaurant within a tenth of a mile of a school is associated with at least a 5.2 percent increase in obesity rates. There is no discernable effect at .25 miles and at .5 miles. Among pregnant women, models with mother fixed effects indicate that a fast food restaurant within a half mile of her residence results in a 2.5 percent increase in the probability of gaining over 20 kilos. The effect is larger, but less precisely estimated at .1 miles. In contrast, the presence of non-fast food restaurants is uncorrelated with obesity and weight gain. Moreover, proximity to future fast food restaurants is uncorrelated with current obesity and weight gain, conditional on current proximity to fast food. The implied effects of fast-food on caloric intake are at least one order of magnitude smaller for mothers, which suggests that they are less constrained by travel costs than school children. Our results imply that policies restricting access to fast food near schools could have significant effects on obesity among school children, but similar policies restricting the availability of fast food in residential areas are unlikely to have large effects on adults. The authors thank John Cawley and participants in seminars at the NBER Summer Institute, the 2009 AEA Meetings, the ASSA 2009 Meetings, the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Chicago, The New School, the Tinbergen Institute, the Rady School at UCSD, and Williams College for helpful comments. We thank Cecilia Machado, Emilia Simeonova, Johannes Schmeider, and Joshua Goodman for excellent research assistance. We thank Glenn Copeland of the Michigan Dept. of Community Health, Katherine Hempstead and Matthew Weinberg of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, Craig Edelman of the Pennsylvania Dept. of Health, Rachelle Moore of the Texas Dept. of State Health Services, and Gary Sammet and Joseph Shiveley of the Florida Department of Health for their help in accessing the data. The authors are solely responsible for the use that has been made of the data and for the contents of this article.


1. Introduction The prevalence of obesity and obesity related diseases has increased rapidly in the U.S. since the mid 1970s. At the same time, the number of fast food restaurants more than doubled over the same time period, while the number of other restaurants grew at a much slower pace according to the Census of Retail Trade (Chou, Grossman, and Saffer, 2004). In the public debate over obesity it is often assumed that the widespread availability of fast food restaurants is an important determinant of the dramatic increases in obesity rates. Policy makers in several cities have responded by restricting the availability or content of fast food, or by requiring posting of the caloric content of the meals (Mcbride, 2008; Mair et al. 2005). But the evidence linking fast food and obesity is not strong. Much of it is based on correlational studies in small data sets. In this paper we seek to identify the causal effect of increases in the supply of fast food restaurants on obesity rates. Specifically, using a detailed dataset on the exact geographical location restaurant...
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