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Keep your laws off my Happy Meal!

When I was a kid in Virginia, the drinking age in my home state was higher than the drinking age in West Virginia. Guess where all the teenagers drove on Friday night?

I envisioned a similar nightly exodus over state and city lines when I heard last week that San Francisco had passed a law that forbids restaurants from offering a toy in unhealthy kids' meals. McDonald's road trip, anyone?

I get the message City by the Bay is trying to send. I, too, am alarmed by how tubby American children have become and the long-term health consequences this young generation faces as a result. But food fascism is not the answer.

We've been luring kids to bad food choices ever since 1912, when they started sticking a prize in every box of Cracker Jack. My generation grew up dumping entire boxes of sugary cereal out just to get to the prize at the bottom. Why suddenly is clever marketing the fall guy for the national obesity epidemic?

What's next? No fun placemats in places that don't serve broccoli? No cherries allowed in Shirley Temples?

I, too, am dismayed that fast food restaurants are concentrated near high-poverty neighborhoods and schools, and that today's kids think a box of French fries needs to accompany every meal. But it's a slippery slope when we start trying to legally dictate what and how restaurants serve us.

Kids aren't crazy about Happy Meals because of the toys. They eat that crap because it tastes good. Parents don't let their kids eat Happy Meals because their kids get a free toy; they hit the golden arches because they are freakin' exhausted from working all day and don't have the time or money to cook a decent meal or go to a sit-down restaurant.

It's cheap. It's quick. And, damn, those toys can make a kid smile away a parent's guilt.

The way to curb kiddie obesity isn't by lashing out at the easiest greasy toy target and passing government regulations destined to be overturned by the courts. What's needed are healthy, inexpensive alternatives; flexible work hours that let parents actually spend time making and having dinner with their kids; and fair living wages that allow families to buy fresh fruit and vegetables every week.

Let the kids keep their toys and legislate something that really matters.

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