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San Francisco toy ban takes the 'happy' out of Happy Meals

Ronald McDonald isn't smiling.

On Tuesday, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to ban restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that fail to meet certain nutritional guidelines. Happy Meals must now be healthy meals.

The city's Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to preliminarily approve the ordinance, enough to ensure it cannot be vetoed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, who won his bid to become lieutenant governor on Tuesday and who opposes the bill. If it passes a final vote next week, the law will come in to effect in December of 2011.

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"This is a tremendous victory for our children's health. Our children are sick. Rates of obesity in San Francisco are disturbingly high, especially among children of colour," Supervisor Eric Mar, who sponsored the measure, said in a statement. "This is a challenge to the restaurant industry to think about children's health first and join the wide range of local restaurants that have already made this commitment."

Under the proposal, restaurants will be allowed to offer free toys or other treats only with meals that contain fewer than 600 calories, fewer than 640 milligrams of sodium and less than 35 per cent of calories from fat. The meal must also include at least a half-cup of fruits or vegetables.

McDonald's, which has come under fire in the past for offering free toys with children's meals, opposes the measure, saying parents, not lawmakers, should decide what kids eat.

"We are extremely disappointed with this decision. It's not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for," Danya Proud, a McDonald's spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Public opinion continues to be overwhelmingly against this misguided legislation. Parents tell us it's their right and responsibility - not the government's - to make their own decisions and to choose what's right for their children."

If it passes, the ordinance could have dire consequences for restaurants hoping to lure youngsters through their doors with the promise of free toys or other giveaways, said children's marketing expert Angel Morales.

"It will affect not only the way McDonald's does business, but pretty much every restaurant as well," said Mr. Morales, managing director of C3 International, a Kansas-based brand marketing agency that services the restaurant industry. "If it were to pass, I think you would have a very, very big push to move those locations somewhere else."

While McDonald's is not the only restaurant chain to offer free toys with kids meals, it pioneered the concept with the introduction of the Happy Meal in 1979, Mr. Morales said.

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"If you were to visit pretty much any restaurant in your area, they all offer in some sort of way a kids meal program," he said.

The measure in San Francisco follows a similar ordinance passed by Santa Clara County, Calif., in May.

"Childhood obesity is a huge issue in Santa Clara County," said Ken Yeager, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. "Year after year the obesity rates just continue to increase, and we just decided we had to do something."

The ordinance affects perhaps a dozen restaurants in the county's unincorporated areas.

"At this point they've all co-operated," Mr. Yeager said. "These chains just stopped handing out the toys altogether. Some of it was because it was easier just not to give out any than figuring out which meals they could give them out with."

The vote in San Francisco was welcomed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which supported the measure.

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"It's a great step in helping parents," said Stephen Gardner, litigation director at the CSPI. "The reason they're putting toys in to Happy Meals is that they want kids to argue parents in to making a decision to go to McDonald's."

In June, the non-profit group sent a letter to McDonald's threatening to sue the company if it didn't stop using toys to market Happy Meals to young children. The suit will be filed in the coming weeks, Mr. Gardner said.

Using toys to market to kids is inherently deceptive, since "marketing anything to a child is deceptive because kids don't have the ability to process the information," Mr. Gardner said..

The issue tends to illicit extreme views. Mr. Gardner dismisses McDonald's argument that parents should decide what their kids eat as "intellectually dishonest."

"McDonald's logic is the same as somebody selling dope at an elementary school and saying it's up to the parents to tell the kids not to buy it," he said.

Golden arches make a super-sized target

Coffee drinkers, French farmers and fat teenagers have all had a go at the fast-food giant

The so-called "Happy Meal law" in San Francisco is just one more example of how McDonald's golden arches are the biggest target in the world of fast food. If the Burger King got this much grief he'd probably cede the throne. Here are five recent examples:

1. Coffee drinkers versus McDonald's

Just how hot can McDonald's coffee be? Too hot for Stella Liebeck. In 1994, Ms. Liebeck sued after burning herself with coffee purchased from McDonald's. A jury awarded her $2.86-million (U.S.). The trial judge reduced that to $650,000. Ms. Liebeck and McDonald's eventually settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.

2. Documentarians versus McDonald's

In 2004, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock set out to show just how unhealthy a McDonald's diet could be by eating only the fast food chain's food for 28 days in his documentary Super Size Me. Why not go after Wendy's? Maybe "Biggie Size Me" just didn't have the same ring to it.

3. France versus McDonald's

In the summer of 1999, farmers dismantled a McDonald's in southwest France to protest against U.S. corporate power and what les radicals deemed the homogenization of culinary culture. The Big Mac is just too big around the world. No one's showing up at a protest to shout about Whoppers.

4. Doctors versus McDonald's

In September, a TV ad commissioned by the U.S.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which launched in Washington, showed a middle-aged man dead on a stretcher. The camera pans to a woman crying over his body and then shows a partly eaten McDonald's hamburger. McDonald's called the ad "outrageous."

5. Obese teenagers versus McDonald's

In 2002, a lawsuit filed on behalf of two obese teenagers claimed McDonald's was responsible for making them fat. The lawsuit, filed in a Manhattan federal court, alleged that McDonald's deliberately misled consumers into thinking its food was healthy and nutritious. A judge dismissed the suit.

Dave McGinn

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