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San Francisco Votes to Limit Toys in Kids' Junk-Food Meals

Today the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in favor of an ordinance to limit toy giveaways in children's meals that have excessive calories, sodium and fat, making San Francisco the first city in the nation to take such action. The measure passed on first reading with a veto-proof majority of 8-3. It will take effect December 1, 2011.

Since the introduction of the McDonald's Happy Meal in 1979, toy giveaways have been a primary vehicle for marketing junk food to kids. Each year, fast food chains sell more than a billion unhealthy kids' meals with toys to children ages 12 or younger.

"This is a tremendous victory for our children's health. Our children are sick. Rates of obesity in San Francisco are disturbingly high, especially among children of color," said Supervisor Eric Mar, the ordinance's sponsor. "This is a challenge to the restaurant industry to think about children's health first and join the range of local restaurants that have already made this commitment." 

More than a dozen local restaurants supported the measure, joining an eclectic mix of public health professionals, educators, parents, organizations, small businesses, community advocates, and faith leaders. This broad coalition was up against a formidable foe in McDonald's and its surrogates, which spared no expense in opposing the measure. From aggressively lobbying public officials to threatening lawsuits, it quickly became clear just how critical toy giveaways are in peddling fast food to kids.

Each year, McDonald's and its competitors pump hundreds of millions of dollars into toy promotions and other forms of predatory marketing  because the return on investment is high…for them, at least. Children up to age 12 command $40-50 billion in directing purchasing power, and influence another $670 billion in family purchases each year.

The downsides are the direct implications for children's health. Reducing even one form of predatory marketing – fast food TV advertisements, for instance – could reduce the number of overweight U.S. children and adolescents by nearly 20 percent.

"Supervisor Mar and his colleagues took a courageous stand in advancing this common sense measure," said Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International. "As the city has so many times before, it put children's health first and paved the way for other cities to curb the predatory marketing that continues to hold public health education back."

Corporate Accountability International's recent report, "Clowning with Kids' Health" analyzes how the industry has in the past avoided accountability for its role in today's epidemic. For one, fast food chains have defended giveaways and other predatory marketing by claiming they are increasingly offering "healthier" options (such as apple dippers with a sugary caramel dipping sauce). Not only is "healthier" a relative term, a recent survey reveals that the "healthier" options are seldom the default option on the menu – a parent must explicitly ask for them. The toys are always included.

"So many of us are on the front lines of this children's health crisis," said Dr. Carmen Rita Nevarez, vice president of the Public Health Institute. "One in three kids are, or will become, sick from the food they eat. We see it not only in our city's waiting rooms and classrooms, but in our soaring health care bills. It's time for fast food promotions to stop contravening our efforts to change this reality." 

Santa Clara County took comparable action this spring, to address the similarly staggering local rates of diet-related children's health conditions like diabetes.


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