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How fast-food restaurants respond to limits on free toys with kids' meals

Jennifer Otten
Stanford nutrition researcher Jennifer Otten and some of the promotional items given away with children's meals.

Do ordinances that restrict the ability of restaurants to give away toys with unhealthy kids' meals have an impact? A new Stanford study looks at what happened in Santa Clara County in the months after the nation's first such policy was enacted.

The study, published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examines the actions taken by a small number restaurants immediately after Santa Clara's ordinance took effect in August 2010.

Although none of the restaurants in the study added healthier offerings for children, two of the restaurants removed toy marketing posters and two offered toys separately at an additional cost. One restaurant singled out the children's meals that met the ordinance criteria as "promoting good nutrition" on its menu boards.

"Before, parents had no idea which meals met the nutritional criteria. After the law was implemented, one restaurant made it clear which ones did," said lead researcher Jennifer Otten. "In addition, there was a clear decrease in toy marketing and advertising at some of the affected restaurants."

With an increasing number of communities looking at ways to curb the rising rates of childhood obesity, Otten and her team want to gather objective data on the effects of policies like the one in Santa Clara County. "This ordinance gave us the opportunity to study a real-world example of a private-sector response to a public health policy," she said.

But the effort won't end there. The researchers surveyed almost 900 families before and after the ordinance took effect to determine whether it affected their fast-food purchases. The team is also collecting data from families and fast-food restaurants in San Francisco, where a similar law took effect on Dec. 1. They plan to publish the findings related to the family surveys and the longer-term restaurant responses in future papers.

Previously: Toying with Happy Meals and Are Happy Meals illegal? A public health lawyer says, yes
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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