Any parent who has ever driven by a McDonald's with little ones in the back seat knows how hard it can be to resist the lobbying, often made even worse due to the marketing of toys with Happy Meals. And of course, other fast food chains also lure kids in with the latest installment of some toy series, often tied to the latest blockbuster movie.
I've been saying for years that it's only a matter of time until some city or county figures out that a simple change in law is all that's needed to make such promotions illegal at the local level. (Localities have tremendous public health authority that is often underutilized.) On Tuesday, it finally happened, and I am proud to say, in a county in my home state of California.
Yesterday, I posted the press release from Santa Clara County Supervisor (and Board President) Ken Yeager's office celebrating the passage of an ordinance that limits to use of toys and other incentives to fast food that meet certain nutrition criteria. As Supervisor Yeager put it:
This ordinance levels the playing field. It helps parents make the choices they want for their children without toys and other freebies luring them toward food that fails to meet basic nutritional standards.
There's no doubt that luring kids with toys works. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that restaurants sold 1.2 billion meals accompanied by toys to children under 12 in 2006 alone. Further, a 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest identified 12 restaurants with kids’ meal offerings that routinely exceed the recommended caloric limits for children. Ten out of 12 of those restaurants offer toys with their kids’ meals.
Now, let's look at the details of this law, since that often gets lost on the press. It's not just about toys, it's about a number of "incentives" and here is how that word is defined:
any toy, game, trading card, admission ticket or other consumer product, whether physical or digital...or any coupon, voucher, ticket, token, code, or password redeemable for or granting digital or other access to [those items previously mentioned.]
And here are some of the nutrition standards that limit the use of such incentives:
More than two hundred (200) calories for a Single Food Item, or more than four-hundred eighty-five (485) calories for a Meal;
More than four-hundred and eighty milligrams (480 mg) of sodium for a Single Food Item, or more than six hundred milligrams (600 mg) of sodium for a Meal;
More than thirty-five percent (35%) of total calories from fat.
Now I don't think that toys should ever be used as food incentives, regardless of the nutrition standards, and I am concerned about the message that fast food companies should market "healthy food" to kids, but this is a still good start and we have to start somewhere.
So how important is this new law, given that it only applies to the unincorporated areas of one county? I can almost hear the shrugged shoulders and people saying, there goes California again, that wacky state. While Santa Clara County may be just an hour south of San Francisco, and is known for being out in front when it comes to public health, with increasing recognition of the health problems related to childhood obesity and poor eating habits in general, we are probably seeing the beginning of the end for fast food companies using toys to hook kids.
First of all, Santa Clara County was also a leader on menu labeling, along with San Francisco. That idea then trickled up to Sacramento, and California became the first state to enact a similar law. And recently, a federal law passed requiring restaurant chains to post basic nutrition information.
Also, Santa Clara is the home of San Jose, the third largest city in California with more than 7 million residents. While this ordinance does not cover San Jose (due to jurisdictional limitations), if the city council takes up the issue there, it would have a huge impact. Meanwhile other cities known for cutting-edge food policies such as San Francisco and New York, are taking notice. Anyone could be next, and of course, it's just this domino effect that scares the pants off of Ronald McDonald.
So what happens now? Just like they did with the menu labeling ordinance, it seems likely that the restaurant industry will file a lawsuit, if for no other reason than to scare other cities and counties away from enacting similar bills. Industry could try to challenge the law on First Amendment grounds, but targeting small children with toys and fast food does not exactly sound like protected free speech.
Indeed, I asked the Santa Clara County Counsel's office if they expect a lawsuit, and here is what Acting County Counsel Miguel Marquez told me today:
I wouldn’t be surprised if the restaurant industry sued the County, but we are confident that any case they bring would be unsuccessful. The California Restaurant Association asserted First Amendment challenges to the menu labeling requirements Santa Clara County (and other localities) adopted two years ago, but they now tout menu labeling as an important service they provide to their customers. We hope the restaurant industry would instead put its resources into designing effective ways to promote healthy eating for children.So just like with menu labeling, a lawsuit is likely to just be a temporary setback. And, by way of responding to those who might think the County has over-reached, he added:
Local government plays an important role in advancing public health. The restaurant industry often works against parents by luring children into developing a taste for unhealthy foods.
Amen. We need more local leadership like that being displayed by Santa Clara. It's only a matter of time before McDonald's and friends sees the writing on the wall and realizes they will have to stop this insidious marketing strategy or risk very bad public relations. And when they do, industry is sure to take all the credit, claim to be responsible corporate partners, and act like they planned it all along.