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Toying with Happy Meals

As you may have heard, a new San Francisco law forbids fast-food restaurants from giving away toys with children's meals that don't meet specific nutritional standards. And, as reported in today's San Francisco Chronicle, some McDonald's franchisees have opted to charge customers 10 cents if they want a toy with their Happy Meal. They said they would give the money to a charity.

Judging from the comments on the Chronicle story, many people believe McDonald's is circumventing the law, which was aimed at making children's fast-food meals healthier. But while some are calling the law a failure, Jennifer Otten, PhD, doesn't see it that way. Otten, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, has been tracking the legislation in San Francisco as well as a similar 2010 law in Santa Clara County.

"This particular legislation has gotten the conversation going about what we as a society are marketing and feeding to our children," Otten told me today. "The way McDonald's is responding invites more conversation."

Otten's interest is in evaluating policies aimed at helping families make choices that improve their health in order to see which approaches actually work. "We want to gather data on legislation with the potential to move the public health needle in the right direction," she said.

Otten has already interviewed more than 500 San Francisco families prior to the implementation of the new law, and she'll conduct later interviews to determine whether it affected the awareness and choices of parents in buying fast-food meals for their children. She's already analyzing similar survey data from almost 900 families in Santa Clara County.

As for Otten's view of McDonald's actions, she said it appears the franchisees are "complying with the law, but not necessarily the spirit of the law." But regardless of what the fast-food outlets do, she said these types of policies are part of a bigger movement to identify the best levers for addressing childhood obesity.

Previously: Are Happy Meals illegal? A public health lawyer says, yes
Photo by Pengrin

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