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The War on Happiness: Leave Happy Meals Alone

Hank Cardello

New York City Councilman Leroy G. Comrie Jr. of Queens has attacked a piece of Americana by proposing to ban “Happy Meal” toys in fast food restaurants.  And while legislators and public health advocates are correct in looking for ways to reverse skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, toys and kids’ foods have been synonymous for almost a century, ever since Cracker Jacks began adding surprises to each package in 1912.

My reservations about regulating toys have less to do with its perceived merits and more with the spotty record of food legislation. Bluntly, two decades of regulations have not delivered on the promise of reversing childhood obesity.         

Let’s look at the legislative scorecard so far. Back in the early 1990s, the government developed the Food Pyramid Guidelines and mandated nutrition label facts on all packaged food products. Even though this provided detailed nutritional information and suggestions on how to design a healthy diet, obesity rates have jumped over 50 percent since then.

The smarter approach would be to create incentives for restaurant chains to devise menus that sell fewer calories per serving to their patrons.

Recent food regulations are faring just as poorly. Contrary to a 2009 study that indicated that the more affluent, educated Starbucks customer purchased fewer food calories when confronted with calories posted on the menus, the latest evidence suggests that these highly touted “calorie counts“ are not cajoling mainstream consumers to purchase
fewer calories.

 A moratorium on fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles also appears to be misguided. Hatched to counter rampant obesity in a poor section of the city, the ruling ignores hard data that obesity rates have soared despite the slight decline in the number of restaurants per capita. The smarter approach would be to create incentives for restaurant chains to devise menus that sell fewer calories per serving to their patrons.

And from Boston, the original “home of the bans,” comes the signing last week by Mayor Thomas Menino of an executive order to prohibit sugar-sweetened beverages on all city properties, not just schools. Studies show that bans or the taxing of sodas certainly will reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (PDF), but there is contrary evidence that these methods will not be effective in achieving the ultimate goal: curtailing obesity. 

The bottom line is that those pushing legislation to reign in food industry practices have been given a “hall pass” on delivering results. There is little to show that banning toys or taxing sodas or labeling menus with calories will reverse the nation’s obesity epidemic. It’s time that the proponents of forcible industry change be held accountable, just as they demand food marketers to do the same.

Pass the Cracker Jacks, please.

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