Friday, August 13, 2010

Banning Harry Potter to Reduce Obesity

A proposed San Francisco law (done in other CA cities) wants to outlaw giving away a toy (like Harry Potter figures) with food that has too many calories, fat, salt, or sugar. In other words, take the happy out of the happy meal because it may condition children to unhealthy eating.
The proposed law not only bans restaurants from including toys with unhealthy meals, it stipulates that entrees must come with fruits and vegetables in order to offer a toy. Junk food purveyors use kid-friendly characters for evil, but there's no reason these same characters can't incentivize healthy eating. In many cases, youngsters want Chicken McNuggets and an order of fries because that meal comes with a shiny, new Hot Wheels car. If that same car came with, say, a grilled chicken sandwich, apple slices, and sauteed asparagus, kids could have their toy and eat healthy meals, too.
1 - Grilled chicken, probably. Apple slices, definitely. Asparagus? Who are you trying to fool?

2 - A less invasive law would stipulate that, if you choose to give a toy with a meal, you need to give it with healthy foods as well. That preserves greater freedom of choice and still accomplishes most of whatever minuscule, secondary effect this has on obesity.

3 - Is there any way to separate kids' choices from parents' choices in this discussion? If any other options are available, you don't go to fast food in order to get something healthy (though I appreciate and order less-bad-for-me alternatives), and it's the parents who choose to go to MickeyDs or whoever. ... On the other hand, I do recall whiningly encouraging my parents to Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease stop at Arby's to try to complete my collection of silly characters they had.

My general rule of thumb professionally is to answer the secondary question: Assuming we go ahead with something like this, is there a better way to do it? This is what points 2 and 3 discuss. There is though the broader question of if this is really a public good we're talking about and if the government should be involved at all. My kneejerk reaction says this will have almost no effect and shouldn't be done on those grounds alone. My two other hands (or knees?) point out that (1) the freedom being infringed on - the freedom to sell or buy a cheap toy with less nutrition food - is really quite minor compared to the culture of infringement we have so that those opposed have bigger breaded fish to deep fry; and (2) this is a local matter and locals and states are given very wide latitudes in our Constitution. Part of it being a local matter is trusting that San Fransiscans can decide for themselves what policies they want without some Cornell post doc trying to butt in. ...

And that's why I developed my rule of thumb! Okay, so you want to do this, how could you get equivalent results better? Allow more substitutions so parents can enforce healthier choices than children are liable to make. Kids won't ask for the salad, but parents may. It preserves more choice.

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