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David Katz, M.D. Headshot

The Pursuit of HAPPYness: San Fran Bans the Happy Meal

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There is a very familiar way of describing exploitation of the vulnerable: It's like taking candy from a baby. Can a society that coined this phrase come to accept that the greater exploitation may be handing the candy to the baby in the first place?

Maybe so.

Amidst the tumult of this week's midterm elections was an advance for public health that may or may not have come to your attention. The city of San Francisco, following an example set some months back by Santa Clara County to its south- passed a law that prevents fast-food companies from including toys with meals that don't meet some reasonable nutrition standards related to calories, fat, sugar, and salt. McDonald's 'Happy Meals,' the inspiration for the law, don't meet those criteria.

So, in essence, this law takes the toy out of the Happy Meal until or unless McDonald's can improve its nutritional quality. In this case, nutritional quality is determined by some relevant guidelines developed at the Institute of Medicine. For what it's worth, I consider the nutrition standards imposed loose if anything. McDonald's has plenty of room in which to wiggle.

But for now, public statements certainly suggest the San Francisco vote was an unhappy one for the fast food giant.

I can think of some others who will be unhappy about the removal of toys from Happy Meals, too. The kids, I suppose, who like the toys. And along with them, adults who see this move as the heavy hand of government. Government is reaching into a child's lunch, and taking the toy- if not the candy- from the baby.

That is the basis for opposition to a law such as this, which might otherwise be the prevailing law of the land, rather than the law of San Francisco. But the objection doesn't stand up to the meanest scrutiny.

Let's assume that you see the removal of the toy from the Happy Meal as a case of Big Brother telling you what to do. How, then, did you view the placement of the toy in the Happy Meal in the first place?

McDonald's did not consult you to find out if you wanted a toy encouraging your child to prefer a meal of lamentable nutritional quality. They did not consult any parent. They may have done consumer testing showing that kids- and thus their parents- are apt to choose such meals, but that's to find out what's best for them, not for you.

They did not consult me about the nutritional standards I would recommend for a meal including a toy. To my knowledge, they did not consult any of my colleagues, either. And while McDonald's does have scientists on advisory panels, they are in no way obligated to listen to them- and probably don't when their advice does not redound to the bottom line.

The toy may seem like a freebie. But there's no such thing as a free lunch, and the corollary is, there's no such thing as a free toy with your lunch either. McDonald's put toys in Happy Meals for one reason: to sell more Happy Meals.

And, of course, it's not just any toy that goes into a Happy Meal. Generally, it's a genuinely 'hot' toy. A toy directly linked to the current Hollywood blockbuster. You know the usual suspects: Shrek, Woodie, Buzz. Coming soon: toys linked to the imminent Dreamwork's movie, "MegaMind".

You can bet there is proprietary research in a vault somewhere that shows that kids prefer meals with toys. You can bet that research also shows the toy in question is more influential when tied in to a popular movie. You can bet there's also research to show what percentage of the time parents give in to the wheedling of their child who wants such a meal.

The reason to take up this topic is not because of Happy Meals in San Francisco, but because the principles here are important, and generalizable.

I do understand the resistance: opposition to heavy-handed government. Those opposed to the toy-free Happy Meal are our defenders against tyranny!

Or are you?

The government in San Francisco, unlike McDonald's, is accountable to voters. The government actually needs the support of a majority of citizens to get elected, and thus have the authority to take the toy out of the Happy Meal. McDonald's only needed the passive assent of its share holders to put it in.

We are all prone, whether or not we care to admit it, to manipulation by multinational corporations with fortunes to spend on the best thinking Madison Avenue can provide. Thinking designed to figure out what it takes to get us to buy what they're selling. Being manipulated into a lunch choice by McDonald's and Dreamworks is not exactly the epitome of personal liberty.

I understand that some see tyranny in the removal of the toy from the Happy Meal. But I think they are missing the point in a rush to judgment.

Removing the toy is the will of parents. The toy was the tyranny.

Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com
www.turnthetidefoundation.org