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Comrie targets Happy Meal toys with new legislation

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City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) acknowledged that his recent crusade against childhood obesity would result in some shots at his own weight problems, but he is determined to make a difference and give his constituents healthier choices.

Comrie’s Happy Meal legislation, which he introduced into the Council last week, would fine restaurants that give children toys with meals that have high fat, salt and unhealthy ingredients.

Kids have started on their path to childhood obesity with Happy Meals at McDonald’s restaurants and similar promotions at other fast food joints, according to the councilman.

“The children start eating these toy meals as early as 2 years old and they associate eating a high-sodium, high-fat meal with getting a toy,” he said.

The bill, which has the support of several Council members, including Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), would fine the restaurants anywhere from $200 to $2,500 for including toys in meal packages that have more than 500 calories, 600 milligrams of sodium and high percentages of saturated fat.

Comrie said that in many parts of the city, especially southeast Queens, there are not that many healthy restaurants or stores stocked with fresh foods. The city is planning to give incentives to business owners to open up healthy supermarkets in parts of South Jamaica as part of a rezoning project, but the councilman said further steps needed to be taken.

“We don’t have a salad bar restaurant in southeast Queens, we don’t have juice bars,” he said.

But not everyone is lining up to support Comrie’s plan. Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) blasted Comrie’s initiative.

“This is yet another step too far. We already require restaurants to disclose calorie counts. If people want to buy their kids a Happy Meal, it is their right to make that choice.,” he said in a statement.

McDonald’s sided with the husky Halloran and released a statement contending that removing the toys from the menu would not stop childhood obesity.

“On average, kids eat at McDonald’s about three times a month,” the company said. “ That means about 87 other meals are eaten at home, school or elsewhere. That adds up to a discussion larger than toys.”

Happy Meal menus at McDonald’s include the option for eaters to have apple slices as a side order to the hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets instead of fries.

McDonald’s Happy Meals currently include toys featuring the popular characters that appear in the animated family movie “Rio.”

Since the bill’s introduction, Comrie has been the butt of many jokes from various media outlets due to his own weight, which he would not disclose but has been reported to be around 300 pounds. A few years ago, he took part in a national diet movement known as “50 million pound challenge,” but the councilman admitted that he was still struggling to lose weight.

The councilman said he has been open about his own personal battle against obesity and expected there to be plenty of personal jabs at his size. However, at the end of the day, he said he was focused on improving the health of his constituents.

“I expected people tried to twist it, but I think we’ve brought up a necessary topic and we’re proud that we’ve gotten some people to talk,” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Updated 10:59 am, October 12, 2011
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