Thursday, November 11, 2010

San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Ban on Toys in Happy Meals is Yet Another Feel Good Policy that Does Nothing to Protect the Public's Health

This Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban the inclusion of toys in kids' meals (e.g., "Happy Meals") that do not meet certain nutritional criteria.

According to a CNN article: "The San Francisco, California, Board of Supervisors on Tuesday banned most McDonald's Happy Meals with toys, as they're now served. The ordinance, which requires McDonald's and other fast-food servings with toys to meet new nutritional standards, now goes to Mayor Gavin Newsom, who indicated before his election last week to California lieutenant governor that he would veto the law. That veto would be meaningless because the board approved the ordinance 8-3, a veto-proof margin. With eight votes, the board could override the veto." ...

"Under the law, McDonald's and other restaurants will have until December 2011 to improve their meals' nutrition by adding fruits and vegetables -- if the chains want to keep offering toys, including those promoting the latest films. The food and beverages will have to contain fewer than 600 calories, and less than 35 percent of total calories will come from fat. The meal must contain half a cup of fruit and three-fourths cup of vegetables, and offer less than 640 milligrams of sodium and less than 0.5 milligrams of trans fat. Breakfast will have the option of offering half cups of fruit or vegetables. City officials said they expect a legal challenge from McDonald's, which declined to comment on possible legal action."

The Rest of the Story

There are three major problems with the ban on toy giveaways with “Kids’ Meals.” First, this intervention will do absolutely nothing to reduce childhood obesity. The toys are not the reason why parents are taking their kids to fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King. Parents are not going to suddenly stop taking their kids out to these fast food restaurants because toys are no longer given out with kids’ meals.

Second, the policy represents a large intrusion into the autonomy of businesses, and a rather severe restriction of marketing. Such an intrusion could be justified if the policy were necessary and effective to advance a substantial government interest, such as reducing childhood obesity. But the policy will not reduce childhood obesity. It will have no public health impact. Therefore, the intrusion is not justified.

Third, the policy represents a selective intrusion into the marketing of kids’ foods. If it is appropriate to prohibit restaurants from including toys as a marketing tool to sell kids’ meals, then why is the San Francisco Board of Supervisors not also prohibiting the sale of sugary cereals that contain toys in the package? Why is the San Francisco Board of Supervisors not also prohibiting soft drink vending machines in schools? What about junk food like Cracker Jacks that comes with toys? And how about promotions where soft drink or junk food companies offer coupons to activities that appeal to youths, such as discounts at movie theatres or amusement parks?

It appears that, just like the ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies, this is largely a feel-good policy that allows the Board of Supervisors to make it appear that they have tackled an important public health issue but without actually doing anything that will have an impact on the public’s health. It allows the Supervisors to garner political credit for tackling a problem without having to make the politically difficult, courageous decisions that would actually make a difference in the obesity epidemic, such as completely reforming school meal nutrition, implementing daily, universal physical activity programs in schools, addressing the geographic maldistribution of healthy food, and improving public parks and safety in urban neighborhoods.

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.

The rest of the story is that what might at first look like a courageous act to go after fast food companies is actually a cowardly maneuver to make it look like our politicians are doing something when in fact, the policy they have enacted will have no impact on the public’s health. In the mean time, the real solutions, which would actually reduce obesity and save lives, are being neglected. This is yet another feel-good policy that creates political gain by misleading the public into believing that something has been accomplished, when in fact there will be no impact on the public’s health.

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