NYC Should Not Ban Happy Meal Toys, Readers Say

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Following in the footsteps of a measure adopted in San Francisco last year, a New York City councilman has proposed that free toys be banned from fast-food meals intended to appeal to children unless the meals meet certain healthfulness guidelines -- and TheStreet readers think the measure is a terrible idea.

City Council member Leroy G. Comrie Jr. said kids' meals, such as those offered in McDonald's ( MCD) famed Happy Meals and at fast-food chains such as Wendy's Arby's ( WEN), Sonic ( SONC), Yum! Brands' ( YUM) Taco Bell and Burger King, among others, need reduced amounts of fat, salt and sugar if toys are to be included.

He introduced the bill to City Council on April 6, arguing that toys only be offered in kids' meals that contain fewer than 500 calories and 600 milligrams of sodium. Less than 35% of the calories may come from fat, he said, save for the inclusion of nuts, seeds, peanut butter or other nut-based butters. The meal would also have to include a half cup of fruit or vegetables, or a serving of whole-grain products.

TheStreet asked readers to weigh in on whether the ban was a good idea -- that anything to help fight the battle of childhood obesity is a step in the right direction -- or a bad one -- that banning toys from kids' meals will not do anything to promote healthy eating habits in children. Voters overwhelmingly agreed it was an awful proposal.

A whopping 92.3% of the 194 voters though the bill a bad idea, while just 7.7%, or 15 voters, thought it could help fight childhood obesity.

The city of San Francisco's board of supervisors voted for a similar proposal in November; Santa Clara, Calif. enacted comparable legislation earlier last year.

Comrie's proposal has stricter health guidelines than San Francisco's. In doing so, he declared that "it's important to find a way to make a healthy lifestyle palatable and exciting."

Restaurants caught violating the ban, if it were passed, would face fines ranging between $200 and $2,500.

Comrie, a Democrat from Queens and self-described busy parent, says his motivation stems from personal guilt about his unhealthy eating habits and the fact that he has purchased many a Happy Meal for his own kids.

Comrie is overweight himself, and hopes the Fast Food Toy Ban Bill will pass, as it did in San Francisco.

"I am an example," he said. "If you look at me. I enjoy fast food and unhealthy eating."

McDonald's and the New York State Restaurant Association are likely not to take this battle lightly.

"This proposal robs parents of choice while increasing the already burdensome regulation on local restaurant owners," said Andrew Rigie, executive vice president of the New York City Chapter of the New York Restaurant Association, according to a New York Times report.

An executive for McDonald's New York region, Mason Smott, said that "taking away toys from kids' meals won't solve childhood obesity."

"Our Happy Meals make it easier for families to choose the right foods in portions just for kids," Smoot said. "We provide options for our customers and trust them to make the decisions that are right for their families. Politicians should, too."

"We are not trying to hurt anyone's bottom line," Comrie said. "We are trying to help people's bottoms."

A reader named Mark asked rhetorically, "Isn't it amazing how politicians just can't take the responsibility in their personal life without making a law out of it?"

Ngregor4 had similar thoughts, asking " Are they going to outlaw hotdogs at baseball games because hotdogs are loaded with sodium, fat consisting of pork & or beef block scrapings and are mystery meats? What about all of the deep fried whatever at State Fairs? Leave the fast foods and their toys alone."

Big_Poppa argued that, "Government needs to stay out of this. They have other things they should be worrying about."

Tired of it all said "We know how to raise our children and if you don't then let your guilt drive YOU in that direction, not us."

Jude55 worried that "With all that is wrong with the economy these days we are wasting legislative time and taxpayer money discussing something that should be none of the government's concern. Given the cost of just getting by, a Happy Meal toy may be the only new toy some kids will receive in 2011!"

C6049714 was more lighthearted, musing that "Geez, Bloomberg and the NYC government sure are taking all the fun out of life."

Proponents of San Francisco's ruling argued such a ban might rein in the strong appeal unhealthy kids' meals draw through the offering of shiny new toys.

"If you take away that lusted-after toy then maybe, just maybe, the next generation of children will begin to change in the way we relate to food," noted a blogger on The Independent's Web site in November.

Many considered the city's efforts to curb childhood obesity to be ill-conceived, disagreeing that such a ban would prevent the plight from which between 16% and 33% of American children suffer, according to recent statistics.

McDonald's argued at the time that it should be parents' "right and responsibility -- not the government's -- to choose what's right for their children."

"There are many causes of childhood obesity, including genetic and lifestyle ones," wrote MSNBC columnist and registered dietician Elisa Zied in November, adding that it "takes more than just axing fast foods" to convince children of the benefits of healthy eating patterns. Zied wrote that she was concerned that "ostracizing fatty meals that come with plastic promotional toys could have the unintended consequence of making the product even more appealing."

Others worried about a "nanny state" takeover.

"If government can ban toys from Happy Meals, what else can it do for our own good?" asked AOL News' Bernie Goldberg rhetorically last fall. "Can politicians pass laws that actually require us to eat fruit and vegetables every day? Can they tax Ding Dongs to the point where nobody but Bill Gates can afford to buy them?"

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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