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Are Happy Meals illegal? A public health lawyer says, yes

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San Francisco recently enacted strict nutrient guidelines for meals sold with toys, essentially banning McDonald's Happy Meals from the city. Though the actual legislation is rather tame - McDonald's and other fast food chains could skirt it by simply selling toys separately, or they could re-formulate their kids' meals to meet San Francisco's health standards - the move sparked a (perhaps predictable) furor in the blogosphere.

But now, a Bay Area public health lawyer examines kids' meals from a completely different angle over at Grist. McDonald's Happy Meals break the law, argues Michele Simon, as does all marketing to small children:

Ample science, along with statements by various professional organizations tells us that marketing to young children is both deceptive and unfair. Why? Because young children simply do not have the cognitive capacity to understand that they are being marketed to; they cannot comprehend "persuasive intent," the linchpin of advertising. Here's how the nation's trade group for kids' doctors puts it: "The American Academy of Pediatrics considers advertising directly to young children to be inherently deceptive, and exploits children under the age of 8 years."

So, if advertising to young children is inherently deceptive, and deceptive advertising is illegal under federal law and in most states, how is it even happening? And doesn't this mean that not just food, but all marketing to young children is currently illegal? I get this question a lot. The answer is yes.

Previously: Researchers find cartoons really do make food taste better (or so kids think)
Photo by Claudio Lobos

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