On the heels of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) infamous failed attempt to ban large sodas, New York City officials are trying their hand at nutrition policy again. This time, they’ve set their sights on a more specific target: the free toys that come with high-calorie kids’ meals at fast food restaurants.
New York City Councilman Ben Kallos (D) has introduced a “Health Happy Meals” measure that would ban toys in kids’ meals that fall short of strict dietary guidelines. In order for restaurants to give away free toys with kids’ food, they’ll have to offer meals that don’t contain more than 500 calories and 600 milligrams of sodium.
“It is difficult enough for parents to give their children healthy food without the fast food industry spending hundreds of million dollars per year advertising to children, and nearly half of that on toys,” Kallos said in a statement announcing his new bill. “If restaurants are going to incentivize children, they should incentivize them to eat healthy.”
Kallos also pointed out that an estimated one fourth of U.S. children’s meals come from restaurants or fast food places, and “those calories could be healthy calories.” Under his measure, restaurants that fail to comply with the toy ban would be fined.
Although several food industry giants promised to stop marketing junk food to kids back in 2009, outside studies have found they didn’t exactly follow through. Fast food companies continue to target their products to children using games, toys, and cartoon characters, and kids are now more likely to recognize unhealthy food brands over healthy ones. The World Health Organization warns that the push to market fast food to children has been “disastrously effective” and has ultimately contributed to the global obesity epidemic.
Banning toys in Happy Meals isn’t entirely unprecedented. In 2010, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to prohibit fats food restaurants from giving out free toys. McDonald’s quickly found a way around the new law, however, by deciding to charge an additional ten cents for the toys so they aren’t technically free. The move angered some public health experts, who said it essentially allowed McDonald’s to “gut this health ordinance” and “continue to seduce children.”
Since then, other states have proposed their own Happy Meal bans — but they’ve been quietly defeated by restaurant groups. In Florida, Arizona, and Nebraska, lobbyists for the $170 billion fast food industry prevented measures similar to San Francisco’s from passing the legislature. “Certainly, there are conversations about strategy,” Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011 regarding the push back to toy bans. “It’s something that we’re following very, very closely.”
New York City failed to get enough votes to pass a toy ban back in 2011, and it’s unclear whether Kallos’ new bill has any better chance now. But it might win more support from the public health community than Bloomberg’s proposed soda restriction did; some critics argued that policy was riddled with too many loopholes and would have been more effective as a tax.
The rates of obesity among children have more than doubled over the past 30 years, and medical services stemming from childhood obesity cost the United States an estimated $14 billion each year. Nonetheless, policies hoping to encourage kids to eat more healthy meals have faced an uphill battle; a recent effort to make school lunches healthier has been met with controversy, and House Republicans recently threatened to vote to weaken those new nutrition standards.