In an open letter to McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner that was published in advertisements yesterday in six U.S. newspapers (not including The Washington Post), concerned health-care professionals urged the fast-food company to abandon one of its most enduring symbols and marketing tools, Ronald McDonald.

The gist of the letter, which is the work of the nonprofit watchdog group Corporate Accountability International, is that Ronald is a highly visible element of McDonald’s long-standing campaign to sell unhealthful food to kids. According to the letter, which was signed by more than 550 prominent doctors and health and nutrition organizations, McDonald’s food is full of fat, sodium, sugar and calories and contributes mightily to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The letter appeared ahead of today’s McDonald’s corporate annual meeting.

From the letter:

McDonald’s and industry front groups have refused to address the dangerous toll that fast food and predatory marketing is taking on our kids. While acknowledging that fast food is unhealthy, you pin responsibility for the epidemic of diet related disease on a breakdown in parental responsibility.

As health professionals, we know that parents exercising responsibility for their children’s diets and physical activity is vital. We also know — and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity agrees — that no authoritative data indicate a breakdown in parental responsibility.

Obesity and disease levels among kids are rising even though parents continue to parent and, as researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conclude, kids continue to exercise at rates similar to those of two decades ago. So what has changed?

What has changed is the food children eat and the amount of marketing they are bombarded with. Even when parents resist the “nag effect” cultivated by McDonald’s to access the $40-50 billion in annual purchases that children under 12 control, advertising creates brand loyalties that persist into adulthood.

The letter extends its criticism beyond Ronald to include Happy Meal toys and McDonald’s other child-centered marketing efforts. (Initiatives have been launched to prohibit Happy Meal toys in hopes that getting rid of them will keep kids from begging their parents to take them to McDonald’s.)

But I would like to meet the family who actually finds itself compelled to drive to Mickey D’s because of an encounter — on TV, online or even in person — with Ronald McDonald. Does he really have that much power over people? He seems like kind of a non-player to me.

Ronald barely made a blip up on my own kids’ radar screens — and not because I didn’t let them watch TV or eat McDonald’s food, because I most surely did let them do both. Somewhere along the line my two dopey kids, neither one likely destined to become a rocket scientist, figured out that you don’t do things just because some clown suggests you do.

And though I’m no personal fan of McDonald’s food, I have to point out that a McDonald’s Happy Meal featuring a burger and fries, while perhaps not the best meal in the world, isn’t the worst, either. At least not if it’s offered as an occasional treat and not a mainstay of the family diet.

Okay, I’ve said what I want to say about this. How about you? Do you think McDonald’s should give Ronald the boot? Or do you think there’s a better way to address childhood obesity?