McDonald’s ‘Happy Meal’ has been a staple of the fast food experience since it was first launched in 1979, and millions are sold throughout the world every day. The meal generally includes a portion of fries, a burger, a soft drink, and a surprise toy. While the Happy Meal is the best-known example of such a product, McDonald’s is by no means the only company to use it. Almost all major fast food chains offer some variation of it. Everything about the product was created and designed with children in mind, from the size of the portions to the packaging, which was initially illustrated with cartoons and comic strips by well-known children’s illustrators. The marketing for the product has also always been squarely aimed at children, with the toy inside being especially effective in making the meal appeal to kids. For many, the Happy Meal is their first introduction to fast food. Also, the toys are usually part of a themed set or collection, based around popular kids’ movies or cartoons, making kids eager to return in order to collect them all. However, with many western countries experiencing an alarming increase in child obesity, some find that the marketing of food with low nutritional value to children should be brought under control. San Francisco is the first major city in the United States, and the world, to ban restaurants from including toys with meals that do not meet specific nutritional standards: exceeding 600 calories, a certain level of sodium and fat, and a lack of fruit and vegetable content. The measure came into effect in December 2011.
Unlike adults, children are not able to make healthy decisions for themselves. They don’t understand what calories, sodium content, or saturated fats are. They are unable to comprehend the long-term effects that fast food might have on their health and development. On the other hand, a toy is instantly appealing to them and offers a straightforward incentive to opt for such a meal. As long as the negative consequences cannot be explained to kids in a clear and compelling manner, we should not make unhealthy food even more desirable for them. We should not allow children to make bad choices based on information they don’t understand.
 Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Fast Food FACTS: Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth.” Yale University. November 2010. http://www.fastfoodmarketing.org/media/FastFoodFACTS_Report.pdf
Children may have a strong preference for a certain type of meal over another, but young kids don’t buy their own food. Parents do. And if kids might not understand that fast food is bad for them, their parents should. If a child is eating too much fast food, that is not a marketing success, it’s a parenting failure.
As well meaning as parents may be in trying to guide their kids toward better nutritional choices, they face a formidable opponent: the fast food marketing machine that spends over 4 billion dollars on advertising a year, much of it targeted directly at kids. This can create enough ‘pester power’ from the kids themselves, seduced by the toy that comes with the meal, that it can persuade parents to make bad choices they wouldn’t otherwise make. By eliminating at least one layer of negative pressure, this law would help parents make those healthy choices that they already know are best.
 Philpott, Tom. “The fast-food industry’s 4.2 billion marketing blitz.” Grist. November 10. 2010. http://www.grist.org/article/food-2010-11-09-the-fast-food-industrys-4.2...
 “San Francisco Happy meal Toy Ban Takes Effect, Sidestepped by McDonald’s.” Huffington Post. November 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/30/san-francisco-happy-meal-ban_n_...
If a parent gives into pressure from a young child so easily, even when she knows it’s the wrong thing to do, then she has bigger parenting problems to worry about than the presence of toys in fast food meals. The government cannot possibly step in to eliminate all temptations and negative influences on children’s choices. Parents need to be firm and provide their kids with the guidance necessary to choose what is best.
Giving away toys with meals that are calorie laden and of poor nutritional quality creates an emotional attachment between the child and fast food. This bond will then follow that child into adulthood, making it harder for her to make better nutritional choices in order to become a healthy individual. This ban would break that bond and make it easier for children to grow up to be healthier adults.
 Storm, Stephanie. “McDonald’s Trims Its Happy Meal.” The New York Times. July 26, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/business/mcdonalds-happy-meal-to-get-h...
It is important to instil good habits in children at an early age. But the manner in which it is done is equally important. Kids should be taught to make choices based on what is best for them, through information and appropriate explanations, rather than just being shielded from potential dangers. That kind of behaviour, predicated on reason and understanding, will have a far more lasting impact on the way they make choices, than just protecting them from temptation, with which they will inevitably have to cope later in life.
All around the world, obesity has become a serious threat to public health. And the problem starts early on. In the US, for example, 17% of youth are obese4. Obesity itself has many consequences; most obviously on health such as increasing the risk of numerous diseases like heart disease, there are however economic costs both for treatment of these diseases, lost working days and due to less obvious costs such safety on transport and its resulting fuel cost. Tackling obesity is therefore well within the purview of government policy. A failure to act might seriously affect the economic productivity of the nation, and even bankrupt healthcare systems. A measure like the toy ban would be a first step to tackling the problem at the root, preventing children from growing up into obese adults.
 Zahn, Theron, “Obesity epidemic forcing ferries to lighten their loads”, seattlepi, 20 December 2011, http://www.seattlepi.com/local/komo/article/Obesity-epidemic-forcing-fer...
Even if we were to accept that the government has a role in combatting the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’, that does not justify it taking any measures it deems appropriate. The government should at the very least be able to prove that there is some link between the toys sold with the fast food meals and the rise in obesity. After all, the toys have been around since the late 70s. The ‘obesity epidemic’ is a far more recent phenomenon.
Parents, not politicians, should be responsible for guiding the choices their children make and the food they eat, especially when they pay for it with their own money. Parents may have other reasons for wanting their children to have the meal with a toy, for example the toy is a useful distraction for the child. Governments should not try to impose their own idea of what constitutes appropriate food choices for children on parents and on businesses. Governments may aim to promote and educate, but imposing bans on private businesses goes too far.
 Martinez, Michael. “Mayor vetoes San Francisco ban on Happy Meals with toys.” CNN. November 13 2010. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/11/12/california.fast.food.ban/index.html
This is not exactly a ban on the sale of fast food to children. This ban does not affect the options of bad foods that parents can continue to feed to their young children if they choose to do so. They will even be able to continue buying happy meals – simply without the toy. It merely alters the incentives slightly toward promoting better, healthier choices by making fast food less appealing.
Studies have shown that only a very small amount of the calories consumed by children come from foods like the Happy Meal. And while kids are eating at fast food restaurants at an alarming rate, it is their parents who make the decision to take them there 93% of the time. Of the kids who do want to go to McDonald’s, only 8% cite the toy as the primary reason. Therefore, this piece of legislation seems to tackle a perceived problem rather than a real one. Legislators would be better off focusing their attention where it matters: providing information to parents about making better choices for their kids, and improving the quality of school lunches, which are actually provided by the government and are eaten by kids every single day, often as their main meal.
 Eskenazi, Joe, and Wachs, Benjamin. “How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco.” San Francisco Weekly. January 19, 2011. http://www.sfweekly.com/content/printVersion/2330057/
Of course there is no such thing as a silver bullet solution to a problem as complex as childhood obesity. This ban would need to be part of a bigger push to regulate the fast food industry’s marketing to children and to provide kids and parents with better choices and information. That doesn’t mean the ban has no merit or that it would not play a beneficial role in the fight against obesity.
The San Francisco ban has already been circumvented by McDonalds who has started selling their Happy Meals without the toys and then selling the toys separately for a nominal price. Banning the sale of any toys in fast food restaurants would be difficult without prompting legal action from the companies. The steep legal costs of defending such a law would waste public resources that could easily be put to better use.
 Eskenazi, Joe. “Happy Meal Ban. McDonlad’s Outsmarts San Francisco.” San Francisco Weekly. November 29, 2011. http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/11/happy_meal_ban_mcdonalds_out...
While McDonald’s may have found a way to circumvent the ban, the significant pressure that was applied to them in the process led the company to improve the quality of the Happy Meal, by providing clients with fresh fruit and healthier drink options. Therefore, the ban could be considered a success.
“Obesity ‘could bankrupt the NHS’”. BBC. 15 December 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6180991.stm
“San Francisco Happy meal Toy Ban Takes Effect, Sidestepped by McDonald’s.” Huffington Post. November 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/30/san-francisco-happy-meal-ban_n_...
Martinez, Michael. “Mayor vetoes San Francisco ban on Happy Meals with toys.” CNN. November 13 2010. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/11/12/california.fast.food.ban/index.html
Philipson, Thomas and Posner, Richard. “Is the Obesity Epidemic a Public Health Problem? A Decade of Research on the Economics of Obesity.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge MA. May 2008. http://www.nber.org/papers/w14010.pdf?new_window=1
Philpott, Tom. “The fast-food industry’s 4.2 billion marketing blitz.” Grist. November 10. 2010. http://www.grist.org/article/food-2010-11-09-the-fast-food-industrys-4.2-billion-marketing-blitz
Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Fast Food FACTS: Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth.” Yale University. November 2010. http://www.fastfoodmarketing.org/media/FastFoodFACTS_Report.pdf
Storm, Stephanie. “McDonald’s Trims Its Happy Meal.” The New York Times. July 26, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/business/mcdonalds-happy-meal-to-get-h...
Zahn, Theron, “Obesity epidemic forcing ferries to lighten their loads”, seattlepi, 20 December 2011, http://www.seattlepi.com/local/komo/article/Obesity-epidemic-forcing-fer...