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How Much Should the Government Regulate Our Food Choices?

San Francisco recently became the first major U.S. city to ban toys from kids’ meals that are laden with calories, sugar and fat.  In an effort to fight childhood obesity, the board of supervisors passed the measure stipulating that only meals with less than 600 calories and less than 35 percent of calories from fat, including a beverage, are permitted to include a toy.  Also, fruits and veggies would need to be offered with all kids’ meals.

The measure’s sponsor calls it “food justice” to protect the city’s children, “particularly kids from low income neighborhoods.”  But McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud retorted in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed with today’s decision.  It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for. … 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.”

It’s true: adult consumers need to take primary responsibility for their health and the health of their children.  Government regulators shouldn’t be too heavy handed in restricting freedom of choice.  Banning goods or activities outright by a “nanny state” who “always knows best” worries the libertarian in me.  But, obviously, not every parent makes good decisions.  And kids are getting fatter, due to bad food choices and declining physical activity levels.  So are many adults, and the costs of obesity are passed on to the rest of us, reflected in rising medical insurance rates and costs to the taxpayers.  So, while we definitely don’t need the government — whether it’s at the local level or the national one — forcefully dictating what’s best for us, some gentle nudges aren’t necessarily too terrible.  The San Francisco measure doesn’t stop any kid — even a morbidly obese one — from getting a Happy Meal if he or she wants one and the parent thinks it’s wonderful.  It just nudges things in a healthier direction by connecting the toy (i.e., a reward) with the more nutritious choice.  Admittedly, it’s a small thing, and minor when compared to the parental responsibility factor.  But maybe it’s not such a bad start.

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