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Fast Food, Childhood Obesity & the Hidden Costs of that Free Toy

Posted Jul 07 2010 9:14pm
Photo by shimelle via Flickr

Photo by shimelle via Flickr

Late last month, a consumer advocate group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) announced its intention to sue McDonald’s for using toys to market Happy Meals to children.  In an open letter to McDonald’s , CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner alleged the toys were part of an unfair and deceptive marketing tactic which gave children “pester power” and taught them unhealthy eating habits.  Mr. Gardner further alleged the company violated Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas, and California consumer protection laws.  Apparently McDonald’s recent Shrek 3 toy promotion was the final straw (and, somehow, the risk of cadmium exposure isn’t a concern here).  In a follow-up press release, Mr. Gardner also compared McDonald’s to:

… the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children.  McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health.  It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.

McDonald’s must decide later this month whether it will continue its Happy Meal toys or succumb to pressure.  So far the company believes that “[g]etting a toy is just one part of a fun, family experience….”

Before you completely write-off this lawsuit and characterization as over-the-top theatrics, just remember that CSPI already has a proven track record.  In 2006, the group sued KFC for using partially hydrogenated oils to deep-fry its food.  KFC subsequently switched to a trans-fat-free frying oil.  That same year CSPI also negotiated a settlement agreement with the Kellogg Company which set certain nutrition standards for marketing to children.  Better not tell CSPI about Cracker Jack and removable tattoos or Topps baseball cards and chewing gum.

In all fairness, CSPI isn’t the only group focusing on marketing to children.  Earlier this year in California, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors banned the inclusion of toys with meals numbering 485 calories or more.  Granted, Supervisor Donald Gage voted against the ordinance because “[i]f you can’t control a 3-year-old child for a toy, God save you when they get to be teenagers.”  The Los Angeles Times has reported on the increasing number of fast food television advertisements directed at children, particularly non-white children.  Likewise, CNN has reported on successful junk food marketing campaigns through the use of cartoon characters.  Perhaps CSPI and its supporters should go after DreamWorks and other studios whose agents negotiate these marketing agreements.  Just a thought.

This concern over McDonald’s Happy Meals and developing good eating habits in children coincides with the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) report “ F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010 .”  The report found that 38 states have adult obesity rates above 25 percent, a sharp increase from 20 years ago when no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent.  (Click here to see how your state weighs in.)  According to TFAH executive director Jeffrey Levi :

[o]besity is one of the biggest public health challenges the country has ever faced, and troubling disparities exist based on race, ethnicity, region, and income….  Millions of Americans still face barriers like the high cost of healthy foods and lack of access to safe places to be physically active that can make healthy choices challenging.

The report suggested a connection between income disparities and adult obesity : “35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year.”  The report also showed that “ more than 12 million children and adolescents are considered obese ” and half of Americans believe this is an important issue to address.  However, rather than suggesting that consumers sue fast food and junk food companies, the report recommended investing in public health initiatives and prevention programs .

I’m not a parent, so I won’t preach about better parenting skills when it comes to “pester power” and how a child’s eating habits are determined as much by their parents as the cartoon characters selling the food.  I’ll just say that there was seldom any debate with my parents over the foods that I ate as a child.  Admittedly, there sometimes are no other alternatives.  Whether you’re a high school athlete on the road, a parent with no time to make dinner, or looking for an inexpensive meal, fast food is the cheap and easy way to go.  Perhaps the key is moderation?

Does this mean CSPI should hold the fast food (and junk food) companies responsible for the development of our eating habits, from childhood to adulthood?  The TFAH report also referred to obesity liability laws in 24 states protecting restaurants, manufacturers, and marketers from weight-related lawsuits.  Take note, CSPI.  (And you, dear reader, take note of Michael Ricciardelli’s post containing some staggering numbers relating to the healthcare costs of managing Type-2 diabetes, in which obesity plays a factor, and Professor Pasquale’s beverage tax utilitarian calculus .)

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