Why Happy Meals Toys are Controversial in California

San Francisco is proposing a ban on Happy Meal toys, such as this one.
San Francisco is proposing a ban on Happy Meal toys, such as this one.

Sure, California is dealing with huge budget deficits, high unemployment levels and nasty political campaigns. But the most polarizing issue in the state right now involves the Happy Meal.

For the uninitiated, McDonald's (MCD) Happy Meals are child-sized fast-food meals that typical include a drink (milk or apple juice), a burger or cheeseburger and fries or apple slices paired with caramel dip. Most fast-food chains have their own versions of Happy Meals, usually served in a colorful cardboard carry box.

Perhaps the most important feature of these meals is the small plastic toy that comes with them. These toys, which change regularly, are usually based on popular cartoon characters, television shows or other pop-culture icons and help encourage repeat visits from kids who collect them. The desire to collect these toys can send even the most well-mannered 8-year-old into a diabolical fit should mommy refuse to buy one.

Now, in a move aimed at stemming childhood obesity, San Francisco has proposed a ban on toys from kids meals. (The County of Santa Clara already has enacted a partial ban on toys packaged with fast-food meals, but the San Francisco law would be far more comprehensive.) In this winter of California's discontent (on all sides of the political aisle), no other issue yet packs the political dynamite of this Happy Meal Incentive proposal.

Protecting Kids or Restricting Parents?

Old-school Californians see San Francisco's move as overly restrictive, heavy-handed and disgusting. Such a ban would rob Californians of free choice and substitutes responsible parenting with government supervision, critics say. For more conservative voters, the proposed ban is more evidence that California is becoming a Nanny State.

Meanwhile, California's more liberal progressives see the mere existence of Happy Meals as cynical, unhealthy and disgusting. Advocates decry the use of toys to market often-unhealthy meals to young children who aren't mature enough to make well-informed dietary decisions. After all, they say, we're living in an era where a 24-ounce, 800-calorie Slurpee constitutes a typical after-school snack.

For their part, public health advocates say that Happy Meals make a powerful impression on young minds and ultimately costs society untold amounts of money to care for obese, sedentary, sugar-addled adults raised in a culture of frenzied fast-food consumption.

In a state where residents often shrug their shoulders when asked for their thoughts on Meg Whitman versus Jerry Brown in the gubernatorial race, nearly everyone has froth-at-the-mouth opinions about the Happy Meal ban. The issue highlights the tremendous political and ideological divisions in a state filled with disparities and contradictions.

Happy Meal Decision Expected in the Next Few Months

But it's not a black-and-white issue by any means. And in California -- where Silicon Valley venture capitalists happily donate money to Emily's List while at the same time espousing the virtues of the writings of uber libertarian Ayn Rand and where conservative voters in the Central Valley aggressively fight higher taxes, but defend farm subsidies just as ardently -- residents are well-equipped to understand this.

So the same people who find it sad that parents lack the fortitude to just say no to junior when he hurls himself on the floor to beseech them for the latest "Shrek" flick Happy Meal toy also find the prospect of increasingly obese children doomed to a list of poor health alarming. In other words, many Californians find a bit of conflict in their souls when it comes to banning plastic toys in nutritionally lacking meals packaged in colorful cardboard boxes.

And that guarantees that the decision -- expected from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors within the next few months -- will not be a happy one for many, regardless of which way it goes.