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McDonald's Scores Magnificent Win in Happy Meal Debacle

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"This is a perfect example of how hard it is to create a regulation that achieves the intended effect," says health care economist Adam C. Powell, Ph.D.

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Beginning today, all McDonald's (MCD) restaurants in the City of San Francisco are forbidden by law to give away toys with Happy Meals.

McDonald's response?

Eat it, California.

Since Policy Number 471.1 through 471.9 -- otherwise known as the "Healthy Meal Incentives Ordinance" -- now makes it illegal to include free toys with food that fails to meet certain nutritional standards, they will now cost customers an extra dime. So, McDonald's will, according to SF Weekly's Joe Eskenazi, "require Happy Meal purchasers to make a 10-cent charitable donation to Ronald McDonald House in order to receive their coveted trinket." And, with that, the world's largest fast-food chain has pulled off a decisive, magnificent win.

"This law is not what my customers wanted or asked for, but the law's the law," local McDonald's franchisee Scott Rodrick told a reporter.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Instead of reducing fat, salt and sugar in children's meals and offering more fruits and vegetables, Rodrick's stores will adhere to the law Thursday by making customers pay an extra 10 cents for a Happy Meal toy. Customers who buy Happy Meals outside San Francisco, including just across the border in Daly City, will continue to get the toy gratis.

"It complies with the letter of the law," Rodrick said. The three other McDonald's franchise owners in the city have agreed to follow the same tack.

Proceeds from the toy sales will be used to help build a new Ronald McDonald House to temporarily house families with sick children at the new UCSF Hospital under construction at the Mission Bay campus.

"This is a perfect example of how hard it is to create a regulation that achieves the intended effect," independent health care economist Adam C. Powell, Ph.D., tells me.

Powell says people "may feel even better about buying Happy Meals now that there's a built-in charity component involved. They were never bundled with altruism until now."

Dr. Patricia Anderson, Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College and an expert on the economics of childhood obesity [PDF], cautions against putting too much emphasis on "smoking guns" like San Francisco has done.

"In my research, I've found that lots of small things add up and lead to childhood obesity," she tells me. "I don't think a crappy plastic toy makes much of a difference."

Time-pressed parents "are not going to bake their child an organic chicken every day," says Anderson, who maintains that, "from a pure calorie standpoint, a small hamburger once in a while is actually not the worst thing in the world."

In short, Anderson says, "You can't say that not having toys in Happy Meals would solve the country's health problems, nor can you say not having Happy Meals period would solve them."

Monet Parham, the 42-year-old Sacramento mother of two whose complaints led to a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that ultimately resulted in the Happy Meal toy ban, believes otherwise.

"Happy meals are among those things frequently requested, and the first thing they ask me to do is open the toy," Parham said at a press conference last year. "I'm really concerned about the health of my children, and I don't think it's OK to entice children to get Happy Meals with a toy."

Anderson finds herself unswayed by Parham's logic.

"If Monet Parham's child pestered her for a pony, would horses have been outlawed?" she asks.

A 2002 article by Rogan Kersh and James Morone in Health Affairs, the "leading journal of health policy thought and research," explored the politicization of obesity in America.

"Obesity has been the subject of powerful public disapproval for more than a century," they wrote. "The criticism developed, quite suddenly, at the end of the nineteenth century. What had long been a mark of prosperity became, as one popular magazine put it in 1914, 'an indiscretion, and almost a crime.'"

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