It's no secret that Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with regulation. While we decry "oceans of red tape" in nearly every aspect of our lives, we continue to elect policymakers who seem to have an unquenchable thirst for even more regulation. Officials from all levels of government and of every political stripe believe ills and injustices – whether societal, cultural or economic -- can be addressed with new legislation or regulation. While most were put on the books with the good intentions of addressing a singular problem, their collective weight over time is arguably stifling our economic growth and global competitiveness.
Recently, The Economist ran a comprehensive series that highlighted the corrosive effect of over-regulation and over-reaching government actions and its impact on the nation's ability to remain a global economic leader. Central to the series was the concept that a country meant to be the home of laissez-faire now has public policy that strays far from the ideal.
Those who operate convenience stores are no strangers to this premise. It is difficult enough to run any small business today, but when you add the body of law involving products offered in most convenience stores, from alcohol to tobacco to fuel, it's a wonder many operators don't just throw up their hands and walk away.
Most of the regulations that impact small-business owners are in the micro-economic realm. Workplace regulations, consumer protections and product restrictions are the norm when operating any business, including c-stores. Operators often consider this just the cost of doing business. But what happens when the nature and intent of the regulations begins to shift so far that their focus becomes deciding whether you should even be in business at all? Could a regulation evolve into something so cumbersome, it determines whether you have the right to open your doors in the first place? Not likely, right? Think again.
Many in the so-called "healthy community/good food" movement are talking up a new concept that should send shivers up the spines of all business owners, especially those looking to expand. Anyone with experience building or developing a site knows firsthand the myriad of regulations incorporated in traditional land use law. An environmental impact analysis and economic impact study alone can make the development process daunting -- not to mention lengthy and expensive.
If that isn't enough, the tofu-loving, anti-business forces behind the good food movement are devising new ways to manipulate land use law in an effort to pursue their various "anti" agendas. Whether it is the obesity/food police, organic crowd, anti-sprawl folks or even leftovers from the anti-business Occupy movement, the activist left is pushing policymakers to introduce a new hurdle to open a business.
Allow me to introduce the Health Impact Analysis (HIA), a new darling of the activist fringe. Similar to an environmental impact study, the HIA measures the impact of a proposed new business on the overall health of the community. It would assess a long list of factors including, but not limited to, whether a plot of land would better serve the community as green space or if overall public health would be improved by the new business.
In the hands of activists, HIAs are being pushed to the extreme with questions such as whether a new business would help or hurt the "food desert" issue or how their product line would impact the obesity problem. Under such parameters, a small restaurant with a menu chock full of vegetarian offerings and green tea would sail through the permitting process, while a mainstream restaurant or convenience store would likely be blocked. Call it vegan nirvana.
This might be laughable if it weren't gaining legitimacy. Activists are following the same path as previous efforts involving smoking and other public health campaigns, by securing a big chunk of money from foundations like Robert Wood Johnson, subsidizing issue forums, securing academic cooperation and engaging the media through outreach to advance their agenda.
A recent panel discussion at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting included academics from some of the country's most prestigious universities. Their message encouraged policymakers to utilize HIAs in efforts to "engineer" so-called healthy communities. Dr. Keisha Pollock of Johns Hopkins University highlighted the first HIA (1999) in the city of San Francisco as a success story in promoting living wage legislation.
Printed takeaway materials included a report titled "Health Impact Assessment: Bringing Public Health Data to Decision Making by the Health Impact Project," a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts. Of interest, the report went on to identify paid sick leave and minimum wage efforts as policy areas ripe for HIA-generated guidelines.
Some states are already seeing the initial wave of HIA impacts. Washington and Massachusetts recently passed legislation requiring the use of HIAs in some circumstances, and legislation has been introduced in Maryland and West Virginia to do the same. Notably, Alaska, California and Wisconsin have adopted HIA requirements without legislation.
This concept isn't a distant threat, lurking in the shadows. It is real and gaining momentum among those who have discernible enmity toward the industry. The collective retail sector must determine when and how to react. Waiting on the sidelines for sanity to prevail is not a viable option.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service-sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.