SF healthy meal rules parallel smoking regulations

Under new regulations in San Francisco, all meals that come with toys will be required to include healthy components. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor) Under new regulations in San Francisco, all meals that come with toys will be required to include healthy components. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor)
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San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, a governing body similar to a city council, voted 8–3 last week to enact “Healthy Meal Legislation,” which restricts toy giveaways with any kind of purchased meal.

The legislation proposed by the board would, according to, require the meal to contain fewer than 600 calories, have at least half a cup of vegetables, and meet sodium limits and a multigrain requirement. In addition, less than 35 percent of the calories in the meal can come from fat, excluding nuts, nut butters, and low-fat cheeses, and breakfast meals may offer half a cup of fruit instead of vegetables.

This legislation is in line with San Francisco’s recent campaign to fight obesity, particularly childhood obesity, using methods such as Shape Up San Francisco, a program to reduce chronic diseases that can be prevented with proper physical activity; Soda Free Summer, a program to encourage the substitution of high-calorie soft drinks with water, milk, and other healthier drinks; and Sunday Streets, a series of block-party-like events to promote walking and physical fitness instead of driving with free events like yoga, tai chi, and rock climbing.

However, all of the aforementioned programs offer incentives to participating individuals, unlike the Healthy Meal Legislation, which seems to favor the stick over the carrot. Though the health risks of obesity are well documented, this legislation is still seen by some as needless. Although I agree with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when he says “Parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat,” I also believe we can draw an easy parallel between the obesity problem and another problem that is now acknowledged by the public: smoking.

In 1964, the surgeon general of the United States released the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee Report on Smoking and Health, a document based on, according to Wikipedia, over 7,000 articles that linked smoking and tobacco use with cancer and other diseases. Shortly thereafter, legislation was enacted that forbade advertisements that obviously targeted children and required warning labels on packaging. In particular, the “Joe Camel” campaign was the subject of a class-action lawsuit, and Camel, the company behind the campaign, was pressured to end the campaign by the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Congress, and various anti-smoking groups. In addition, the Motion Picture Association of America is authorized to give a film that glamorizes smoking outside of a mitigating context a more restricted rating.

This response has contributed to a massive decline in the number of individuals smoking in the United States. In 2009, 20.6 percent of adults aged 18 years and older reported being current smokers, which is a dramatic decline from the 40 percent reported in 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though this is an accomplishment to be proud of, obesity has increased from between 10 and 14 percent in 1985 to 33.8 percent in 2009, according to the CDC.

This massive rise in obesity has come during a period in which the detrimental effects of obesity are being discovered. According to a RAND Corporation brief published in 2002, obese individuals suffer from a 67 percent increase in chronic conditions, while smokers suffer from only a 25 percent increase.

Though my initial reaction was to dismiss San Francisco’s legislation against unhealthy meals including toys and to support Mayor Newsom’s veto, after some analysis, it seems to me that advertising Happy Meals in their current state to children despite the known risks is not much different from advertising smoking to children, and I support San Francisco’s attempt to remove the “lure” of a toy from obviously unhealthy meal choices for its citizens. However, I also agree with Mayor Newsom’s support of programs that encourage health education, as the same children must be educated about healthy eating since their parents will not always determine their food choices.