May 18th, 2011

Fast-food industry is quietly defeating Happy Meal bans

Los Angeles Times

The restaurant industry is quietly — and successfully — fighting back against the enactment of so-called Happy Meal bans, which forbid restaurants like McDonald’s to hand out toys with children’s meals that are high in calories.

Moving under the radar so stealthily that in some cases local politicians and anti-obesity activists missed it entirely, lobbyists in Florida and Arizona backed successful efforts to take away the power to enact such bans from cities and counties. In Nebraska, a proposed statewide Happy Meal ban died in February, even before its first legislative committee hearing.

“Somebody was working the committee,” said Nebraska state Sen. Bill Avery, who sponsored the proposed toy ban. “The bill was killed and indefinitely postponed without discussion.”

First enacted in the Northern California counties of Santa Clara and San Francisco last year, the bans have won the support of public health activists throughout the nation. A ban is under consideration in New York City, which like California has been aggressive in requiring restaurant chains to post calorie counts and other nutritional information. Toy bans are meant to discourage restaurant chains from tempting youngsters to consume high-calorie, sodium-laced fried fare that has been linked to soaring levels of obesity in U.S. children.

A group of public health advocates — including obesity experts at Tufts University, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition — is running full-page ads in several newspapers this week calling for McDonald’s to stop marketing to children and to retire its mascot clown, Ronald McDonald.

Such measures have been widely ridiculed by restaurant owners and many conservatives, who say that parents, not lawmakers, should decide what children can eat and whether they can have a toy. A proposed toy ban in Superior, Wis., garnered only one vote late last year.

Still, as the idea has gained traction, many in the industry realized that they had to act quickly, said Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Assn.

“We felt that this had the capacity to really spread quickly into other states and become the rule, not the exception,” Chucri said. “We wanted to make sure that we were proactive in not having that happen in Arizona.”

Chucri and his organization, with the support of the National Restaurant Assn. in Washington, prepared a bill that made it illegal for cities and counties in Arizona to try to regulate any incentives that restaurants provide to entice customers. The law does not stop lawmakers at the state or federal level from passing a toy ban.

The organization wrote the bill’s language and proposed it to sympathetic members of the Arizona Legislature, Chucri said. It passed in March and was signed into law last month by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

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