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Santa Clara County Ban on McDonald's Happy Meal Toys Accomplishes Nothing

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"Michael's daughter begged him for days to take her to McDonald's in Nevada for a Happy Meal. Swearing her to secrecy, he finally acquiesced. But kids talk among mcndonalds happy meal toysthemselves. Two days later Family Services showed up at his California home. He was charged with transporting the girl across state lines and contributing to the obesity of a minor..."

Hopefully it won't come this, but one has to wonder. Santa Clara County, California is certainly moving in that direction, having banned the sale of toys in McDonald's Happy Meals.  Huh? The logic is that big, bad corporations like McDonald's target-markets kids for unhealthy meals by enticing them with the toys. Well yes, of course they do - they're in the business of selling fast food. But this contributes to childhood obesity, the argument goes, and therefore warrants government intervention to protect the children: "This ordinance prevents restaurants from preying on children's love of toys," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who proposed the ban. "It is unfair to get people hooked on eating high-sugar, high-fat foods early in life."

"Preying?" Is Yeager for real? There is so much wrong with this I hardly know where to begin, not the least of which is the moral equivalency of fast food marketing with child predation. Fact is that many kinds of companies market to children including food, apparel, entertainment, communications, toys, you name it - everything that kids buy or ask their parents to buy. And some of these things - some foods, certain styles of clothing, genres of music and video-game content, for example - might not be so healthy or wholesome for kids. Does that mean marketers should be banned from targeting children? More importantly, who decides what should be regulated? I find it ironic that communities typically fail in banning pornography sales on First Amendment issues, yet Santa Clara County can ban Happy Meal toys.

Second, is a government body like the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors even qualified to make such decisions? Are they nutritionists? Anyone who watched Supersize Me  will agree that a steady diet of fast food isn't good for you.

We know that. But how often is too often? What if you wanted to buy your child a Happy Meal as a reward for getting an A on the report card? Or for an in-store birthday party? And what about all the other dietary-incorrect stuff like candy, sweetened cereals - and even white bread and fruit juices? Yup, hate to tell you - white bread and fruit juices have glycemic indexes right up there with refined sugar and can contribute to obesity and risks of diabetes. Are we actually going to regulate marketing of all these products to children? Should we ban the prizes in Cracker Jack, which is essentially sugar-coated, corn-based carbs? And go after all foods containing high-fructose corn-syrup that's in practically everything, as we learned in Food, Inc.?

The problem is that government officials typically get it wrong. When officials in New Jersey banned soda in public schools but allowed fruit juice they all patted each other on the back thinking they did something good for our kids' health. But they ignored the fact that fruit juice has as much sugar and almost as high a glycemic index as soda - in other words, it's almost as bad as soda for the exact same reasons.  And it's the same story in Santa Clara. They went through the motions to convince themselves and their constituents that they were doing something about childhood obesity - and it's very stylish to demonize corporations - but in reality they accomplished nothing.

I'm all for consumer education. As a former super-sized kid myself with a family history of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, I'm very careful about my diet. And if food producers want to voluntarily cut back on ingredients they believe are unhealthy and restaurants want to feature heart-healthy meals, fine. But I don't want the government dictating what I can and can't buy - it's my choice.

The answer to childhood obesity is not regulation. It's not demonizing McDonald's. It's lifestyle choices and parental responsibility. The problem is not what McDonald's serves, it's that too many families don't have dinner at home together often enough. It's that people don't take the time to establish healthy dietary and activity habits for themselves and their children. Food, Inc. showed how the food industry can respond successfully to market demands for healthier food choices. But we have to make those demands. The power and the responsibility for change is - and should always be - with the people, not the government.