Friday, November 12, 2010

San Francisco Happy Meal "Ban": Nanny State or Necessary?

While the headlines call it a "Happy Meal" ban, it's actually a ban on the sale of toys with any meal that doesn't meet nutritional guidelines for children. It's the response of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the childhood obesity problem.
I have very mixed feelings about the government regulating what people should just have the sense to do themselves. I had a similar reaction to the lawsuits filed against McDonald's and other restaurants, accusing them of causing people to be obese. I don't like McDonald's: the food is disgusting and unhealthy, their restaurants produce tons of waste, and their business practices are questionable. But no one is holding a gun to anyone's head and making them eat Big Macs. It's not like McDonald's hasn't tried to introduce healthier options. (Remember the McLean, anyone?) People want this stuff.
But I see the other side of the coin: it's very difficult to resist the marketing efforts of these large companies, especially when their turn their marketing "gun" on children. Yale University's Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity recently completed a major study of fast food nutrition and marketing. Some conclusions:
  • Only 12 of 3,039 possible kids’ meal combinations at 12 leading fast food restaurant met nutritional criteria for preschoolers.
  • The industry spent $4.2 billion (yes, that's billion with a "b") advertising and marketing in 2009.
  • This advertising works:
    • 40% of children ages 2-11 ask their parents to go to McDonald’s at least once a week.
    • 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day.
    • 84% of parents report taking their child ages 2-11 to a fast food restaurant at least once in the past week.
    • The average preschooler sees almost three ads per day for fast food; children ages 6-11 see three-and-a-half ads.
And there is very little question that we have a problem with obesity, particularly among children. According to the Center for Disease Control, obesity rates among 6-to-11 year olds (which I would assume to be the target market for Happy Meals) have more than quadrupled in the last 30 years. This affects us all in lost productivity and increased health care costs.
As with any issue like this, the causes are undoubtedly complex: increased time spent in front of the TV, more video games and web surfing, parents' fear of crime (e.g. being kidnapped by strangers) that leads them to keep their children inside, a suburban lifestyle that makes walking difficult (because of great distances, lack of good walking routes, etc.). But it's less than a coincidence that the rise in childhood obesity has occurred at the same time as the increase in the availability (not to mention the calorie count) in Happy Meals and their ilk.
So I reluctantly have to support this. As long as the "market" compels companies to push unhealthy products, and as long as people aren't willing or able to make smart decisions about this, I believe government needs to step in. I wish I had more confidence in the government to do this kind of thing right all the time. They don't, not because government is bad and evil, but because it's beholden to the same corporate interests that push growth and profit above any other criteria.
And perhaps it could actually help the fast-food companies themselves. If it levels the playing field by preventing any one company from gaining an advantage by offering more calories, sugar, flavor, etc., than the others, then they'd have to compete on other criteria, perhaps by offering healthy food with the best taste and/or lowest price.

1 comment:

  1. Increase in childhood obesity has occurred at the same time as an increase in parent/guardian inability to say "NO". Children can't drive themselves to the restaurants and buy happy meals. Saying "NO" levels the playing field. Governments stepping in because people aren't smart enough to make good decisions is fascism. Instead of dictate - educate. Counter fast food advertising with healthy nutrition messages. Make healthy eating the new norm, make it a required course upon graduation from high school, have Oprah make it "one of her favourite things!" and so on and so on, and restaurants will have to adapt their menus and kids toys, or die......without government intervention.

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