Photo: Christina Kennedy, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Queue up another round of controversy for San Francisco -- the city has just voted to ban the practice of marketing unhealthy food to children. Specifically, it has outlawed the practice of using Happy Meals or other similar toy-based promotions to sell foods proven to lead to childhood obesity. The law will require that foods meet certain nutritional standards before they can be sold with toys. San Francisco is the first major city to pass such a law -- and its impact will likely be widely felt:Reuters reports:
San Francisco has become the first major U.S. city to pass a law that cracks down on the popular practice of giving away free toys with unhealthy restaurant meals for children. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed the law on Tuesday on a veto-proof 8-to-3 vote. It takes effect on December 1, 2011. The law, like an ordinance passed earlier this year in nearby Santa Clara County, would require that restaurant kids' meals meet certain nutritional standards before they could be sold with toys.When news first broke that Santa Clara passed a similar ban, it gave rise to a heated debate in the comments -- mentions of the nanny-state were common, and a general sentiment cropped up that banning Happy Meals is a case of governmental overreach. Needless to say, this decision will likely be even more intensely debated.
Opponents of the law include the National Restaurant Association and McDonald's Corp, which used its now wildly popular Happy Meal to pioneer the use of free toys to market directly to children.
After all, San Francisco is a major consumer market, and the impact of such a ban will have a much greater ripple effect than the previous ban in Santa Clara. Not only that, but the law will be put under much closer scrutiny -- if we start to see childhood obesity levels drop there, we should see more interest from other municipalities in pursuing similar policy.
I understand the discomfort with the law, especially since it seems that for many, Happy Meals have an emotional resonance from childhood -- which to me, speaks to the power of this kind of targeted marketing. But it seems like a reasonable idea to make the foods paired with toys designed to appeal to children more nutritional (Happy Meals are indeed for the most part extremely unhealthy, and, well, invincible).
And nobody can argue that we're not in the midst of an obesity epidemic here, and much of it, of course, stems from the development of bad eating habits early on. This could, in fact, turn out to be a powerful incentive for kids to eat better -- if you're going to sell food to kids by enticing them with cheap, colorful toys made in Taiwan, you might as well use those marketing powers to encourage a healthy diet, right?