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McDonald's Hit by Happy Meal Toy Ban

Come 2012, kids in San Francisco will not be getting a free toy with their McDonald's Happy Meal. The San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted earlier this week to ban McDonald's and all fast food restaurants from plying kids with free toy giveaways on meals that are deemed to be too full of calories, fat, and sodium. Before you crank up the "only in San Francisco" chants, though, take note that S.F. is not the first region to cut off toy marketing by fast food restaurants. This past spring, California's Santa Clara County -- which encompasses Silicon Valley -- passed a similar Happy Meals toy ban ordinance.

Moreover, if the Center for Science in the Public Interest has its way, the toy ban could go national. It is getting ready to sue McDonald's over its practice of throwing in a free toy along with an order of fries and Chicken McNuggets. "McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children's developmental immaturity -- all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It's a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction," says CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. But just how valid are these claims, particularly when weighed against consumers' rights to choose what they want to eat and buy?

Big Brother Lording Over Parents...
Plenty of parents don't seem exactly thrilled with government stepping in and trying to do their job. Cries of "nanny state" and "leave the parenting to the parents" dominate the comments to the Happy Meals ban report at the San Francisco Chronicle's website. Outgoing S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom (outgoing in that he was elected the state's next lieutenant governor in Tuesday's election) is also on record as saying that he is against the Happy Meals ban, citing business, not nutritional concerns. "I don't think you can regulate how people market products without going down a dangerous path," Newsom has said. "This is a whole ['nother] role of government I am not supporting." Even if Newsom had remained in charge, though, the Board of Supervisors' 8-3 vote would have been enough to override a mayoral veto.

...Or a Smart Health Initiative?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has tripled over the past 30 years. More specifically:

  • Among pre-school age children 2 to 5 years of age, obesity increased from 5 percent to 10.4 percent over the same time period.
  • Among children ages 6 to 11, obesity increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008.
  • Among adolescents aged 12 to 19, obesity increased from 5.0 percent to 18.1 percent.
And unhealthy kids have a habit of growing into unhealthy adults. (To wit, a Brazilian court recently sided with a former McDonald's manager who sued the firm after gaining 65 pounds on the job.) Banning toys served up with a fat-laden and sodium-soaked fast food meal won't solve the problem. Maybe it doesn't even make a sizable dent. But as BNET's Melanie Warner points out, sometimes symbolic gestures are the start of more substantive change.

Plus, there are the financial costs to consider. According to a recent study, being obese costs women an estimated $4,879 a year and men $2,646 due to factors such as having to take more sick days and reduced productivity. And all of us are paying a price in terms of the cost to our health care system. A new study out of Cornell estimates that the annual cost of treating obesity in the U.S. is $168 billion, representing about 16.5 percent of our national medical care costs. That's some food for thought next time you're wondering what can be done to rein in your ever-rising health insurance costs, as well as our national tab for Medicare.

Photo courtesy Flickr user happymealy

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