On Tuesday, California became the first state to pass explicit legislation holding restaurants more accountable for children’s health. The new law, referred to as the “healthy kids’ meal bill,” requires that restaurants include healthy beverages like milk or water as the default with their kids’ meals. Though children or their accompanying adult(s) may still request to substitute the child’s default drink with a more sugary alternative like juice or soda, policymakers hope this menu change will reduce kids’ consumption of unhealthy drinks at restaurants. This change comes after six top chain restaurants—including Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Dairy Queen—already have taken soda off their kids’ menus altogether.
This kind of legislation had started in several California localities before becoming state law. Right now, other cities like New York City, Baltimore, and Louisville are considering implementing a similar bill. California’s precedent sends an important message to beverage industries, which have previously lobbied against public health measures that potentially threaten sales: “the movement to address sugary drink consumption and protect public health marches forward,” the Center for Science and Public Interest reports.
The notion that requiring “opting-out” of a default healthier choice will lead to more of its use than requiring “opting-in” is not new. In fact, behavioral economists have long studied this type of subtle nudging, and it already exists in many legislations around us. For example, schools expect enrollees to have received certain immunizations before the start of classes. Of course, students can receive exemptions from this stipulation, but if these immunizations were optional altogether, then schools would see many fewer students getting their shots than they do under the current “opting-out” scheme.
California’s new policy shows the state’s commitment to improving children’s health. If previous “opting-out” laws are any indication, their “healthy kids’ meal bill” will be able to reduce aggregate sugary drink consumption, while still ultimately preserving consumer choice. This is only one small step toward encouraging healthier diets for kids, but it is a step forward nonetheless.