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Preempting a Movement for Childhood Obesity Prevention

June 13, 2011

Taking a well-worn page from the playbook of the Tobacco Industry, the fast food industry is quietly, and so far successfully, eliminating local control over nutrition policy.

In March, the Arizona legislature passed a preemption bill written by the Arizona Restaurant Association.  The new law, which goes into effect in July, takes away the authority of local communities to regulate “toys, games, coupons, crayons, coloring placements or prizes that appeal to children if they are offered at restaurants,” according to a Reuters article.

In an opinion piece in the Arizona Daily Star titled “Pre-emptive bill on fast food and kids reeks of hollow politics,” Dale Kunkel and Doug Taren of the University of Arizona write that “Allowing the use of toys and other premiums to promote high-fat, high-calorie kids’ meals is one of the food companies’ favorite tactics.” No community in Arizona had even tried to address junk food marketing to children, more evidence that the Arizona preemption bill is part of a larger effort to stop the spread of the local obesity prevention movements like Santa Clara County, California’s ban on toys in children’s meals of poor nutritional quality.

In May, the restaurant industry succeeded in slipping Happy Meal preemption into an unrelated bill passed by the Florida Legislature.  Then in June the Ohio Senate passed legislation taking away local authority to regulate restaurant ingredients, in response to Cleveland’s recently adopted ban on the use of Trans-Fats.  Preemption has also passed in Alabama, according to the New York Times.

It all started in Washington, DC.  When federal preemption of restaurant menu labeling laws was added to 2010’s health care reform legislation, taking away state and local authority over menu labeling, the industry bragged that preemption was “Good News For Franchise Restaurants.”

After hitting a home run in Washington, the industry took its preemption strategy on the road, turning last November’s Tea Party into a Junk Food Party.  As if to prove its power in the state legislatures, the fast food industry rolled out an ambitious campaign for state preemption of local childhood obesity prevention efforts.

How can obesity prevention advocates fight back against a powerful and sophisticated preemption campaign?  After all, fast food is a $170 billion industry in the US, and $1.6 billion is spent on advertising to children.

Obesity prevention advocates can mine important lessons learned by the grassroots tobacco movement in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Today, the tobacco control movement uses the excellent website to expose the tobacco industry’s tireless efforts to preempt local smokefree ordinances.   In addition, tobacco control coalitions learned early the importance of tracking legislation and responding rapidly to educate and mobilize advocates to “shine a bright light” on any attempt to erode home rule.

Preemption and other industry shenanigans usually happen behind closed doors.  According to the LA Times, the restaurant industry’s campaign against local control is “Moving under the radar so stealthily that in some cases local politicians and anti-obesity activists missed it entirely.”   The National Restaurant Association denies that they’re orchestrating a national campaign to preempt local obesity prevention movements, but their spokeswoman admits that “there are conversations about strategy.”

History has proven the most effective way to protect community control and self-determination is to shine a bright light on the lobbyists who are behind preemption, and their motivations.  But the obesity prevention field better do it quickly or risk losing a vital and diverse movement to prevent childhood obesity.