Monday, October 04, 2010

San Francisco Board of Supervisors Considering a Bill to Ban Toys in McDonald's Happy Meals

I'm not joking.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors - which last month voted to ban tobacco sales in all pharmacies -- is, indeed, considering an ordinance which would ban the inclusion of toys in McDonald's Happy Meals, unless the meals include fruits or vegetables and limit the total calories to a specified value.

San Francisco would not be the first local government to take such an action. Last summer, Santa Clara County implemented an ordinance which bans toys from food promotions aimed at children (it only covers unincorporated areas of the county).

In addition, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has threatened to sue McDonald's over its inclusion of toys in Happy Meals.

The San Francisco ordinance would affect not only McDonald's Happy Meals, but any fast food toy giveaways, including Burger King's Kids Meals, which include a toy.

The Rest of the Story

It may come as a surprise to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but it is not the toys which are causing childhood obesity, it is the food. If this degree of intrusion into the marketing of legal products is justified, then so is a more direct approach of simply regulating the food that can or cannot be sold to children. Obviously, such an approach is beyond the appropriate role of government.

Moreover, this issue is not as simple as it might appear.

A typical Burger King Kids Meal includes a hamburger, fat free milk, and apple slices, and supplies 430 calories and 10.5 grams of fat.

If instead of a Kids Meal, a parent insisted on his kid having a Garden Salad and fat free milk only, the meal would supply 430 calories and 26 grams of fat.

So the garden salad and fat free milk option provides the exact same number of calories as the Kids Meal. However, the Kids Meal is far healthier, because it supplies only 10.5 grams of fat compared to 26 grams of fat in the garden salad "healthy" meal.

Is the San Francisco Board of Supervisors also going to ban the provision of toys in garden salads sold to children? Why not just ban the sale of garden salads to children, since at Burger King, these salads contain a "whopping" 26 grams of fat.

In fact, a regular hamburger at Burger King is "healthier" than a garden salad. The hamburger has 260 calories and 10 grams of fat, while the garden salad has 330 calories and 26 grams of fat.

At McDonalds, ordering a hamburger provides less fat than ordering a salad with regular dressing (9 grams of fat compared to 15 grams).

If you're worried about sodium intake, a hamburger and a child's Coke at McDonalds provide less sodium than a garden salad and an apple juice box, while providing 50 fewer fat calories.

Back at Burger King, consider this comparison:

Garden salad and dressing
Calories: 330
Fat: 26 g
Sodium: 770 mg
Protein: 6 g

Hamburger (with ketchup, mustard, and pickles)
Calories: 260
Fat: 10 g
Sodium: 490 mg
Protein: 13 g

In every nutritional category listed, the hamburger is healthier than the garden salad, which includes vegetables and presumably would exempt the product from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' toy promotion ban.

My point is not that hamburgers are generally healthier than salads, but that nutrition is a complicated matter and solving the obesity problem is not as simple as legislating some sort of easy fix. I'm aware of no evidence that parents would stop taking their children to fast food restaurants if only these restaurants wouldn't give out toys with their kids' meals. There just doesn't appear to be any solid scientific basis for this degree of intrusion into the right of companies to market legal products.

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