The XX Factor

Legislating Happy Meals

Hold onto your Chubby Hubby, Rachae l. Santa Clara county passed the ban on toys in fast-food meals , which imposes very specific limits on the meals restaurants can promote to kids by including a festive plastic doo-dad: No more than 200 calories in any single food item, no more than 120 calories in the drink, and the entire meal has to come in at under 485 calories. There are additional limits on salt, fat, and added sugar (all of which would totally exclude the mocha-and-cruller breakfast I’m enjoying as I write, but then, no one offered me a toy to go with it).

I was thinking about why we hate the idea of this ban so much, when it doesn’t forbid the restaurants from selling the food or even marketing it-only from offering that little plastic incentive, which I know neither you nor I particularly appreciate. In theory, it reminds me of the ideas in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge , which I enjoyed and appreciated. I’d have no objection to the state imposing additional requirements such as proof of health insurance and an agreement to be an organ donor upon motorcyclists who wish to ride without a helmet, or imposing a ban on certain gamblers from entering casinos-but only on gamblers who’ve actually asked to be banned. On the food front, I wouldn’t object to a requirement that cafeterias put the healthier options in front and tuck the cupcakes away in the back, as long as the cupcakes remained reasonably accessible, of course.

What’s different about this? It doesn’t really remove a choice-you can still buy the high-fat Happy Meal. You can probably even still buy the toy. It’s a gut reaction from my inner libertarian, who hears the ban on toys as not only a imposing a choice on her family (or maybe a tax, since one would now be required to affirmatively purchase the worthless toy in order to offer the same restaurant experience), but also as a judgment on earlier parenting decisions. By framing itself as a ban, rather than a nudge, this law (which still has to go through one more vote before it’s actually imposed in Santa Clara County) raises our collective parenting hackles-but it really isn’t any more than a nudge: You can have the cheeseburger and fries or you can have the grilled chicken and apples-but only the grilled chicken and apples comes with a toy. (My kids would go for the fries.) When I think of it that way, I’m less bothered by it, but only slightly. It still strikes me as more of a bribe than an incentive, and I don’t see that as a good way to talk about food. More importantly, I resent the legislating of this. If McDonald’s offered it voluntarily (how about a better toy with a healthier meal?) I’d applaud them, but I remain thumbs-down on making it the law.