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Santa Clara County bans Happy Meal toys

Jeanne Walpole | May 29, 2010

With childhood obesity reaching epidemic proportions all over the country, supervisors in Santa Clara County, Calif. have stepped up to the plate by proposing a happy meal toy ban they believe will help do battle with the problem. Taking aim at fast food restaurants that include toys such as Barbie Mermaid dolls with kids' food, the ordinance would make it illegal to include toys in meals that contain more than 485 calories or 600 milligrams of sodium. Supervisors who support the law say they believe that families make unhealthy food choices because kids are motivated by the toys and not just the food. Restaurants that violate the law could be fined up to $1,000 for multiple violations.

Limits of the law

Far from being broad-based, however, the ordinance is very specific in its application to only about a dozen eateries in just a few neighborhoods. Also, it doesn't apply to meals that contain less than the designated calorie and sodium. Supervisors say they hope Santa Clara can be a shining example to other communities who may be influenced to pass their own version of the law.

Proponents

Reasoning that the end justifies the means, supporters of the ordinance say that anything that might discourage kids and families from making unhealthy food choices is worthwhile. When enacted, the law is designed to do the following:

  • Break the relationship between unhealthy food and prizes
  • Increase the awareness and value of healthy food choices
  • Help decrease the rate of childhood obesity
  • Lower the cost of health insurance because of healthier weight and lifestyle
Recognizing that childhood obesity is a complex issue, proponents of the happy meal toy ban believe that even though it may not change things overnight, it's a step in the right direction.

Opponents

Hardly a slam dunk proposal, the ordinance has come under severe fire from many parents, as well as the restaurant industry who view it as another heavy-handed move by government to interfere in what they believe should be their own personal or business choices. With its targeted application that singles out just a few restaurants, it also smacks of discrimination, putting those few businesses at a distinct disadvantage in the market place. Parents point out they can just avoid those who have the ban and find others that don't if they want the toys. They also contend that it does little to combat the multifaceted problem of obesity.

Because of backlash to the law, the supervisors have provided a 90-day grace period during which the 22,000-member California Restaurant Association is encouraged to offer its suggestions. The association says it was left out of the initial discussions. Considering the controversy surrounding the ban, a truly open forum is a step in the right direction, rather than immediately leaping on the bandwagon of punitive action. As a starter to this discussion, how about rewarding kids for good choices by putting the toys in the healthy meals, rather than the unhealthy ones? It's just food for thought.

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