28 April 2010

McDonalds suffer as California County Bans Toys With Fast-Food Meals to protect children's health

For county officials in the Silicon Valley, it turns out that Happy Meals are not so happy after all.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, tackling the problem of childhood obesity, voted today to ban restaurants from offering toys with children's meals unless the food meets specific nutritional standards.

The measure is the first in the nation to restrict fast-food restaurants' marketing strategy of using toys to entice children to buy high-fat, high-sugar and high-calorie meals.

"This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes," said board President Ken Yeager, who sponsored the measure. "It imposes commonsense nutrition on meals linked to toys. We hope that other municipalities, counties and states will follow suit."

The ordinance applies only in the unincorporated parts of Santa Clara County, a largely suburban region south of San Francisco. County officials say there are just 50 restaurants that would be affected by the law, and only a few are fast-food restaurants that might offer toys as incentives.

Nevertheless, the measure was strongly opposed by fast-food franchise operators and other restaurant owners who fear the idea might spread to other jurisdictions. Santa Clara County was one of the first to require that restaurants provide calorie information on their menus, a requirement incorporated in the federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama.

Dozens of opponents of the ordinance attended the meeting and at times applauded loudly when their representatives spoke.

"We do agree that there is a childhood obesity problem," Amalia Chamorro, local government director of the California Restaurant Association, told the board. "Getting rid of the toys is going to do nothing to solve this problem."

The board, granting a small concession, agreed to give opponents 90 days to come up with an alternative plan before the ordinance takes effect.

Supporters of the measure say toys offered with high-calorie meals entice children to choose high-fat, high-sugar items that can be addictive and lead to obesity.

County Public Health Director Dan Peddycord told the board that childhood obesity has become an epidemic and that nearly 25 percent of the children in the county are overweight or obese. One in every three children born today will grow up to be a diabetic, he said. The odds are even worse for Hispanic children: One in two will become diabetic.

"Childhood obesity is the public health issue of our era," he told the board. "We have a collective responsibility to right-size the environment we live in."

Children who become obese at a young age are likely to be obese as adults and have a significantly higher risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer, said acting county public health officer Sara Cody. A 2006 study found that obesity costs the county $420 million annually in health care expenses and $496 million in lost productivity.

The ordinance sets limits of 120 calories for a beverage, 200 calories for a single food item and 485 calories for a meal for any item sold with a toy.

Restaurants will be fined $250 for the first violation and $500 for the second.

Peddycord said a check of restaurants in the county found few children's meals under 650 calories.

Offering toys with the lower-calorie items could create an incentive for children to make healthier choices.

The issue brought out emotional, if not always well-informed, opposition. Some critics accused the board of banning all toys with meals.

Stephen Hazel, who brought one of his own favorite toys to show the board, says he collects them and sends them to children in the Philippines. He called Supervisor Yeager "head Grinch Ken Yeager" and angrily asked, "Do you want to be the one who bans toys?"

Kevin Kettila was equally heated. "I take this personally that you are trying to take away our freedom of choice," he said. "Parents have enough good information without you having to legislate this. You are going to deprive the little kids of a toy."

But Joanne Seavey-Hultquist, the mother of a 3-year-old and coordinator of a nonprofit for children called FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, said parents need help in countering the fast-food restaurants' marketing strategy.

"Research shows that parents are at a disadvantage when children are offered a reward for selecting a high-fat, high-calorie meal," she said. "I appreciate a policy that helps me as a parent to do my job."

And Nicole Kohleriter, communications director for the Health Trust, another Silicon Valley nonprofit, said fast-food marketers know that parents can be worn down when their children plead for a toy.

"The toys are in the food because the toys sell the food," she said. "I think this ordinance is not about taking away parental choice but about leveling the playing field."

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