San Francisco bans fast-food toys

Children’s meals must adhere to nutrition rules

Andy Villatoro, 5, shown with his father, Carlos, played with his McDonald’s Happy Meal toy in San Francisco. Andy Villatoro, 5, shown with his father, Carlos, played with his McDonald’s Happy Meal toy in San Francisco. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
By Trevor Hunnicutt
Associated Press / November 10, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO — It is a happy moment for people who see the Happy Meal as anything but.

San Francisco has become the first major American city to prohibit fast-food restaurants from including toys with children’s meals that do not meet nutritional guidelines.

The city’s Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 3 in favor of the measure yesterday after giving it preliminary approval last week. That is enough votes to survive a likely veto by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The ordinance, which would go into effect in December 2011, prohibits toy giveaways in fast-food children’s meals that have more than 640 milligrams of sodium, 600 calories, or 35 percent of their calories from fat. The law also would limit saturated fats and trans fats and require fruits or vegetables to be served with each meal with a toy.

“Our effort is really to work with the restaurants and the fast-food industry to create healthier choices,’’ said Eric Mar, supervisor and the measure’s chief sponsor. “What our kids are eating is making them sick, and a lot of it is fast-food.’’

The legislation is a big victory for activists and public health advocates who have accused food marketers of being complicit in the country’s growing childhood obesity rates. They hope other cities and counties nationwide will follow their lead.

“This will be a sign to the fast-food industry that it’s time to phase out its predatory marketing to children at large,’’ said Deborah Lapidus, a senior organizer with Corporate Accountability International of Boston, a watchdog group that supported the legislation.

A similar ordinance has already been approved in California’s Santa Clara County, where it affected about a dozen restaurants.

The industry, which favors self-regulation, says there is no evidence that San Francisco’s law will halt the expanse of children’s waistlines and the diseases associated with obesity, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

McDonald’s and Burger King Corp. are among 17 major food and beverage marketers who have signed on to the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulation effort run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

McDonald’s says its meals advertised to children meet government nutritional standards, limiting total calories to 600 per meal and capping fats and sugars. The company also agreed to curtail advertising in schools and promote healthy lifestyles in all marketing efforts directed at children.

“McDonald’s remains committed to responsible marketing practices, including advertising and promotional campaigns for our youngest customers,’’ Neil Golden, McDonald’s senior vice president for marketing, said in a statement.

McDonald’s sent several senior executives and others to San Francisco to oppose the measure.

As it was being drafted, amended, and discussed over several months, Corporate Accountability ran a local newspaper advertisement signed by physicians, community activists, and small restaurants that called on Bevan Dufty, a Board of Supervisors swing voter, to support the measure.

Dufty eventually did so, saying San Francisco should not wait for the federal government to act and should serve as an example to other cities.

Fast-food restaurants spent $161 million advertising to children under 12 and an estimated $360 million on toys distributed with their meals in 2006, according to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report.

Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, said fast-food advertising aimed at children has increased since self-regulation efforts began.

“They’re only really promoting it halfheartedly,’’ Schwartz said of healthier food options. San Francisco’s law “is making the restaurants practice what they preach.’’

The lure of such items is all too familiar to parents like Carmen Sanchez, who was at a San Francisco McDonald’s recently and said she sometimes hears children beg for Happy Meals.

“If the babies don’t get what they want, then they won’t stop crying,’’ Sanchez said.

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