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The Nanny State: "The Happy Meal Ban" and other public health measures

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
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The soda wars are underway on the West Coast and the East. To get us back in the groove, here’s New Yorker Jon Stewart, and his thoughts on Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on selling soft drinks bigger than 16 ounces in the Big Apple.

While Mayor Bloomberg is being clowned by comedians for how he’s trying to change New York, we turn our attention back to the Bay Area, where the history of liberal politics goes right up to right now. Rules here cover food, to fun, to technology.

In fact, last summer, San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos wrote legislation requiring cell phone retailers to provide information regarding the radiation they emit for consumers, to keep them safe. It passed unanimously in the city, but just a few days ago, on Monday, that law was rejected by a federal appeals court.

Still Supervisor Avalos has strong feelings about so-called nanny politics. KALW’s Ben Trefny spoke with him last fall, just before he came in 2nd in the mayor’s race. As one of the top progressives in the city, his voice carries pretty far. Here’s what he had to say about making laws to protect the public health.

SUPERVISOR JOHN AVALOS: There are interests who are opposed to changes and regulations, and they would like, the telecommunications industry would like you to think that your cell phones are never going to have any detrimental effect to your health, and even if there is evidence of that they'll probably try and suppress it. So when you have legislation that might impinge on, you know, what they feel like are their rights, they're going to start calling it names. And so, that's the frame they want us all to be in. If you're gonna require regulations that protect people's public health, they're going to say that you're overbearing and you're acting like a Phoebe Figalilly from Nanny and the Professor. BEN TREFNY: So you think that legislating for the public good and the public health, for example, is valid and important? AVALOS: Yeah. On Ocean Ave., we have a McDonald's. It sells… Every moment of the day you'll see 20 cars passing through there. It is on Ocean Ave. It takes up a whole city block. Part of that is just a parking lot, and people are getting fast food there from McDonald's. TREFNY: It's right across from City College. AVALOS: Yes, right across from City College. Is that a good use of land in San Francisco? I don't think that's a really good use of land. We have a housing issue, how many jobs are at McDonald's? Twenty to thirty jobs? TREFNY: Probably pretty low-paying. AVALOS: Pretty low paying jobs. Is that a huge public benefit? I would say no. Is that a huge resource that's being underutilized? Yes. There are ways that businesses set up that are not beneficial to the general public, and I think looking at how we can create structures to help businesses improve what their record is and the benefits they provide is what the government should be looking at.

Supervisor Avalos’ discussion of McDonald’s brings to mind another bout of controversial public health legislation in the city: when Supervisor Eric Mar tried to take the Happy out of the Happy Meal.

Supervisor Mar has long been a crusader for healthier living, and a couple of years ago, he took his concerns to City Hall.

SUPERVISOR ERIC MAR: We're part of a movement that is moving forward an agenda of food justice. From San Francisco to New York City, the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country is making our kids sick, particularly kids from low-income neighborhoods, at an alarming rate. It's a survival issue and a day-to-day issue.

Mar proposed a measure to make San Francisco the first big city in the States to ban restaurants from giving away a free toy with meals containing too much fat and too many calories.

The measure passed, effectively telling McDonalds that its iconic Happy Meal was not welcome in San Francisco. Like the Bloomberg’s soda regulation, this toy ban caught the attention of The Daily Show. Here’s Supervisor Eric Mar being interviewed by Daily Show correspondent, Aasif Mandvi:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

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McDonald’s figured out a way to get around the ban by charging 10 cents per toy for each Happy Meal. Then they donated all that money to the Ronald McDonald House.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line when it comes to legislating public health. But that’s a part of the job.

Another prominent elected official from the Bay Area, State Senator Leland Yee, representing San Francisco, shared his thoughts on the topic.

SENATOR LELAND YEE: We would all like to believe, and want to have a society where nobody tells us what to do, or nobody restricts our behavior. But I'm one of those old fashioned progressive liberals that government is there to try to be of help to people. So when you have young individuals in their formative years you ought to have certain laws to help them grow in a productive way.

The Happy Meal, for example. I know Eric Mar was a supervisor and author who got a lot of negative press, but the thing to remember is that we do have an obesity problem and would like our parents to control what these kids eat – and for those parents who can do that you will not need the Eric Mar law because the parents can dictate to the kids what is it that they ought to be eating and come to some understanding. There are going to be some other parents that can't do that, so we have to ask the question what do we do about those kids? Do we allow them to have an unhealthy lifestyle so they can hurt themselves? Or do we provide them with some sort of assistance? That's where the Eric Mar bill comes in. It really provides an assistant for parents to say to them that your kids should ought not be eating these things because of the un-nutritious attitude and values within that particular food.

As a result, if we can prevent that from happening, that's a good thing. The irony of irony is that the food industry were clamoring against this particular bill and they have modified their selection for children. I think all of us understand that we've got an obesity problem and we've got to handle it. And anything and everything we can do to try to help kids to be a lot more healthy, I think it's a good thing.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.