San Francisco Just Landed a Blow For Parents…
I have been struggling with this blog post for a long time… You see, deep down I wonder whether it is right or appropriate for us to create laws that tell companies how they can and can’t sell their products when they are acting in a transparent manner. That is to say, as long as the company is giving you all of the information, ie what is in their food, how they make it, etc, should we further regulate their behavior?
With some businesses I know the answer is yes. When cigarette companies used to have incentive programs where you earned points for smoking packs of their cigarettes and you could turn them in for shirts and hats, that was clearly wrong. Studies showed that kids were influenced the strongest and they smoked more to get the swag (the studies that showed this by the way were apparently internal documents by the cigarette companies themselves). As well, the swag itself was a problem because the logos were targeted to the children.
So I guess the question of whether it is right or appropriate to create laws limiting the marketing of products should really read:
The case with marketing cigarettes to children seems pretty cut and dried (after all it is illegal for children to smoke at all), but in fact, government limits the marketing of cigarettes and tobacco to adults as well. I am assuming the limits of marketing put on alcohol and tobacco come from the fact that both of these products have addictive properties. If this is the case, then the fast food industry is standing on the brink of a disaster.
Recent studies have shown that what we term as junk food, food that is very high in sugars, fats and sodium are extremely addictive. As well, sociological evidence, the fact that 2/3 of adults and 1/3 of children are obese or overweight in a society that preferentially selects for slim and underweight, adds a tremendous amount of evidence that eating well is out of our immediate control. Under these circumstances, based on past laws limiting marketing, it would be necessary for government to not only ban advertising of junk food to children, but moreover to everyone!
One might argue that government limits the marketing of cigarettes and tobacco on different grounds, say those of societal harm, but there are not many things you can say about the harms of alcohol and tobacco that you can’t say about fast food (according to U.S. Federal Agencies, obesity costs the United States an estimated $150 billion dollars each year).
Why San Francisco is the Battle Ground
All of this is important because, recently the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in favor of an ordinance to limit toy giveaways in children’s meals that have excessive calories, sodium and fat. Whether or not you agree with advertising to adults, or for that matter kids, you have to see a problem with rewarding children with a toy for eating food that is insanely tasty, terribly bad for you and addictive. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we allowed others to give our children incentives and prizes for making terrible choices. How about you earn a small toy if you fail and exam. You get some candy if you go with a stranger. Maybe even a car if you drop out of school before you are 17!
The Fight for Our Rights
People still say, and in fact McDonalds publicly said that it should be our right as parents to make this decision.
“We are extremely disappointed with today’s decision. It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for. Public opinion continues to be overwhelmingly against this misguided legislation,” said Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s. “Parents tell us it’s their right and responsibility — not the government’s — to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children.”
The, ‘it is our right’ argument is a tough one to deny. We love our rights. Nobody better take our rights… any of them. Yet when we think about ‘our rights’ we tend to think in absolutes and rights don’t work that way. We don’t hesitate to thank government for regulating the advertising of smoking to our children. After all, they are helping us out. We know many more children would smoke (maybe our children) if we let cigarette companies use children friendly mascots or for that matter if it were legal for children to smoke in the first place (and then cigarette companies could give out toys with the cigarettes). We thank government for helping us keep our society safe in such a way as we can raise our children up through some times when judgment is poor so they have a chance at a healthy and happy life. According to the Illinois Department of Health, Approximately 90 percent of all smokers start before age 18 and the average age for a new smoker is 13. Clearly this is a time when judgment is poor. In this case, we understand that we aren’t losing any rights (or at least we are happy to have the protections that come with the loss of these rights), and we have reason to believe that our families and our societies are healthy because of this. We probably got together and fought government to pass laws in these cases because government benefited so much from the money that they earned from taxes on cigarettes. Yes, we had to make government protect us.
So, when we think of people taking away our right as a parent we get pissed, but the reality is, nobody is taking away your right as a parent in the fast food toy case. In fact it is even less of an infringement on your rights than the smoking case. If you want to give your kid a toy when you go to McDonald’s give your kid a toy. There is no law against that. In fact, tell me what right you are losing as a parent? Are you losing the right “to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children”, as McDonald’s is saying? The only thing we are taking away is McDonald’s rights. You aren’t losing any rights, not even your rights as parents to get toys and fast food in the same location (strangely you still have that right to get McDonalds and toys at the same location because McDonalds is located in Walmart ). Despite the pathetic attempts at hiding behind our Bill of Rights and our Love of Rights, McDonald’s doesn’t give a rats ass about your rights. Big corporations always want us to confuse our rights with theirs. The rich do it to. The thing is, rights aren’t absolute and if we have to infringe on the rights of McDonald’s to bribe children to get hooked on fast food (and make no mistake this is exactly what they are doing and exactly what they know they are doing) to protect the rights of children to be safe from poor nutritional choices that will effect them for life, and to protect society from an epidemic, then that is exactly what we should do.
In fact nothing is more American and nothing is more constitutionally protected than exactly this. The ninth amendment to the constitution asserts the existence of unenumerated rights, or natural rights. Those rights that aren’t in the constitution specifically but are assumed to belong to everyone equally. This is specifically why we have courts, to determine whose rights take precedence when rights come into conflict. So, for McDonald’s to suggest that San Francisco didn’t do exactly what every one of us parents wanted them to do to McDonald’s is laughable. We as parents want help with raising healthy kids. Things that governments-federal, state and local, corporations and communities could do to help with this would include helping people have access to healthy food choices, helping people have access to physical activities that are safe and enjoyable, sharing information about healthy choices and activities and limiting marketing of unhealthy foods and activities to our children.
Communities do a pretty damn good job of this by the way and that is why it isn’t surprising that the first few shots across McDonald’s bow come from City and Municipal councils.
The Future of Fast Food
As I sit here and write this down, I am aware of how strongly I stand on the issue of preventing companies from giving incentives to our kids to get them hooked on addictive products. Products that will make them ill, reduce their overall happiness and self esteem and quite likely end their lives early. This is how I see it.
It really is a black and white question of whether you see fast food as addictive or not and whether you attribute it as a cause of our obesity epidemic. Those are really scientific questions. There is evidence, albeit nascent to support both of those claims. If fast food is addictive and it is causing obesity then it would be morally repugnant to market that product to children and I don’t know if there is a word for how evil it would be to give kids toys to get them hooked.
It is probably wrong to market any highly addictive product to the general public as a whole.
If you agree on this, please send this to as many people as you can, or write your own article about this issue. People have to know that parents are in support of limitations put on fast food companies. You could also tweet Mayor Newsom at: http://twitter.com/gavinnewsom
A Final Note
Apparently McDonalds spent a buttload of money to prevent San Francisco from passing this law with aggressive lobbying and theats of lawsuits. I wonder what that was like. Where did the money go? Who did they pay and who spoke up for them? Although the vote was strong enough that it can block a veto, the mayor of SF said he will still veto the law when it comes up.
Mayor Newsom said that he doesn’t think the city can legislate their way “out of obesity.” Newsom said he doesn’t believe that government should step on the toes of companies while they are marketing their products. Though he maintained that he is an advocate of healthy eating, he just didn’t think that this was the way to promote it.
“It’s a wrongheaded approach to combating childhood obesity,” Newsom spokesman Tony Winnicker said. “Government taking away children’s toys won’t help parents make healthier food choices for their families.”