What I believe to be one of the more provocative laws to pass on Tuesday took place in San Francisco. From the newswire:
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.
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.
Setting aside the political discussion for a moment, let’s take a brief moment to simply enjoy the schadenfreude, shall we? Rare is the moment in time when we can point at the McDonald’s and Burger King’s of the world when they get called out on the carpet for practices that encourage poor behavior in children.
And yes, while the parent bears a great majority of the responsibility in deciding what their children consume, this does not mean that fast food restaurants should get a free pass when they inundate children with images of how delicious burgers, fries, and shakes can be. For a point of context, McDonald’s spent almost $1.78 million a day on traditional advertising in the United States in 2009, of which, 40% is aimed directly at children. Doing some quick math, that means that McDonald’s spends close to $259.8 million dollars per year to influence children. This doesn’t even begin to take into account the brightly colored cartoon characters peppered in their locations, and the playgrounds, and the birthday party arrangements. Let’s be honest here, these aren’t part in the stores out of the generosity of the company. They’re there to get kids to buy. more. stuff. The Reuter’s piece expands on this.
In 2006, the latest year for which data is available, fast-food companies led by McDonald’s spent more than $520 million on advertising and toys to promote meals for children, according to a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report.
When the efforts of other food and beverage companies were included, promotional spending aimed at children topped $1.6 billion.
For a point of reference: Annual chewing gum sales in the United States are roughly 1 billion dollars as well, meaning there is more money spent on advertising fast food to children then there is money spent on gum.
I admit, I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I don’t have children, and, as an author of books on whiskey and candy, I am quite possibly the last person one should turn to in discussions on health. As an adult, I hope other adults take responsibility for their decisions, whether it’s eating at McDonald’s or downing a bottle of Jack Daniels, and I have faith that most parents understand the responsibility of raising their children in the best possible way, which includes the responsibility of minimizing the influence of borderline unethical advertising. So when a government takes that responsibility away from a parent, and puts it in their own hands, I get a bit…uncomfortable.
Here’s where the political question comes into play – What line has to be crossed in order for the government to intercede on the behalf of parents? What threshold has to be crossed in order for a Board of Supervisors to say “You know what McDonald’s? What you’re doing is unfair and unduly influences our society in a negative way.”?
Clearly that threshold has to do with health. Do a quick search on obesity in the United States, and you’ll see what I mean.
But Kevin Drum brings up another interesting point that this case entails:
Leave aside the substantive question of whether San Francisco’s decision was a righteous blow for our children’s future or the first step down the slippery slope of fascism. McDonald’s, like every big company, sells standardized merchandise nationwide. This is impractical if every city in America decides to have its own rules. No toys in San Francisco. No trans fats in New York City. No styrofoam containers in Houston. No factory farmed beef in Seattle. No California potatoes in Boise. No artificial sweeteners in Boston. Etc.
Taking a whack at this from a purely hypothetical point of view, what it means is chaos for corporations who track in interstate commerce. This could eventually mean one of two things – Corporations turning to the federal government to create more uniform oversight (which is sort of what we have now with the USDA and farming). But this seems a bit unlikely to me in a climate where roughly 1/3rd to 1/2 of our populace wants less federal oversight in general.
The other extreme here is fast food companies simply refusing to do business in certain areas where the cost is too high (or the income is too low…if the happy meal toys affect sales that drastically). In my utopian world-view, this is a win in my book, as this would not mean an end to fast food restaurants in those areas not served, but an end to corporate fast food. Regional companies would fill that void.
My evidence? Seattle itself, where the McDonald’s and Burger King’s of the world have less of a foothold in the restaurant scene than in other major cities (Hello, Columbus!). But we still have a preponderance of fast food restaurants. It’s just that they’re nearly all teriyaki joints.
The chance of this happening? Slim. More likely is claims of local government overreach in San Francisco, and an increase in fast food sales in San Jose.
All of this because of toys in a box of hamburger and french fries.