California county fights obesity epidemic

April 28, 2010 12:00 am

, SAN FRANCISCO, Apr 28 – A California county is stopping restaurants from using toys to lure children to high-calorie, salt-laden food such as popular "Happy Meals" hawked by fast-food giant McDonald\’s.

Elected officials in the county of Santa Clara, in the heart of technology centre Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, voted on Tuesday to enact the ban to fight an "obesity epidemic" sweeping California and the United States.

"This ordinance prevents restaurants from preying on children\’s love of toys to peddle high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium kids meals," said Ken Yeager, the county supervisor behind the ban.

"This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes."

County public health officials that spoke in support of the ban at a public meeting blamed fast-food for being a factor in soaring obesity rates threatening American children with diabetes and shortened life spans.

"Obesity is literally an epidemic," county public health director Dan Peddycord said in remarks to the board of supervisors.

"If food meals sold in restaurants contain too many calories, high fats, high sugars, high sodium and are attached to an incentive item like a toy, that is part of the environment we make our decision in."

The ban is to take effect in 90 days unless major fast-food chains and the state restaurateurs association successfully pitch a better solution.

It will bar toys from being offered with meals that don\’t meet a set of basic nutrition standards.

Harlan Levy of McDonald\’s was part of a fast-food restaurant contingent that turned out to oppose the ban.

"It substitutes the county\’s judgment for the judgment of parents," Levy told the board. "It does nothing to address a holistic response to the problem."

For example, the ban doesn\’t change sedentary lifestyles that have children sitting watching television or playing videogames, Levy argued.

"It\’s parents, schools, exercise, walkability but it is also the endless promotion of toys that are tied to unhealthy meals that is particularly to blame," Yeager said of growing obesity problems with children.

"It is unfair to parents and children to use toys to get them hooked on eating high-calorie, high-fat foods early in life."

Fat, salt and sugar form an addictive combination in the brain and adding a toy reward to the formula makes the habit even harder to kick, according to county health officials.

Supervisor Liz Kniss equated the fast-food meal toy ban to instituting speed limits on roads or barring cigarette smoking on commercial flights.

"With this kind of ordinance it is really difficult to be first," said Kniss, who voted in favour of the ban. "It is easy to say that we as parents should make the decision but kids can be so persuasive."


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