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America's Junk Food Debate Heats Up

America's Junk Food Debate Heats Up
U.S. News & World Report
World At Large 7/1/02
Fat Nation fights back-sort of

In a nation where "supersize" is used regularly as a verb, it's no
surprise that our national waistline is expanding. Rapidly. More than 60
percent of American adults are overweight-27 percent severely so.
Obesity among adolescents has doubled to 13 percent since the early
'70s. Last week, Southwest Airlines drew fire for charging wide-body
fliers for two seats if they couldn't fit into one. But this is no time
for fat jokes. The surgeon general has declared obesity a national
epidemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's
fast replacing smoking as public-health enemy No. 1. Beyond the human
costs, the financial costs are staggering: some $117 billion annually in
healthcare and lost wages.

So how can America trim the fat? It's way too late for treadmills and
Diet Cokes alone. First, we must tax all those Twinkies and french
fries, health advocates say. And if higher prices won't do it, we'll sue
the junk-food vendors. That's right, fresh from slaying Big Tobacco,
some trial lawyers are now hungry to take on fast food and the snack
industry-known collectively as "Big Fat." These companies, the lawyers
say, use manipulative strategies to market unhealthful products that,
when consumed regularly, can lead to disease and death.

Sound crazy? Not to John Banzhaf. A law professor at George Washington
University, Banzhaf was a pioneer in the tobacco wars. When he suggested
30 years ago that Big Tobacco could be sued to recover healthcare costs
for smokers, people laughed. Billions in settlements later, no one is
laughing. Now some legal scholars say Banzhaf just might achieve his
latest cause: holding fast-food joints and junk-food producers at least
partly responsible for our expanding girth.

Bloated ad budgets. Has it really come to this? Where is the line
between personal responsibility and public health? Must trial lawyers
and government bureaucrats separate Americans from their cheeseburgers
and Pepsis? Some health advocates say we have little choice. The food
environment has become so suffused with fat and sugar, they argue, that
only the government can bring some balance to the national diet.
Overall, the food industry spends some $30 billion a year on
advertising. By contrast, the entire federal budget for nutritional
education equals one fifth the advertising costs for Altoids mints,
according to Kelly Brownell, a Yale psychologist who specializes in
eating and weight disorders. In that environment, Brownell says,
"willpower will take you only so far."

Brownell has long pushed for a "fat tax"-a tax on fast food and snacks
based on their propensity to contribute to obesity. The tax would raise
money to subsidize healthful foods and promote fitness education. But so
far, there are no takers in Congress-legislators generally try not to
anger their largest constituency.

Which brings us back to Banzhaf. Like Brownell, he'd like to see
Congress-not lawyers-take action. But as the old saying goes, if you
can't legislate, litigate. The legal hurdles are no small thing. How to
prove, for example, that Sally Smith's heart attack was caused by
McDonald's Big Macs and not Dunkin' Donuts' breakfast treats? There are
potentially hundreds of defendants. And unlike tobacco, food isn't
addictive. Why didn't Sally just stop eating junk food? Banzhaf plans a
gradual approach. First, initiate class action suits against companies
that misrepresent fat content, for instance. Some litigation is already
in the works. Next, move on to the issue of misleading advertising: Sue
the manufacturer of "energy health bars" for passing off a candy bar as
health food. Last stop on the litigation train? Sue Burger King, for
instance, for not clearly warning that its Double Whopper value meal may
contain more calories than the government recommends an average adult
eat in a day. By that point, Banzhaf feels, there should be some new
studies strengthening the links between obesity and disease. Public
opinion would begin to shift, and soon states would sue fast-food
companies to recover healthcare costs. Observes Banzhaf: "There's blood
in the water."

And that has restaurateurs worried. So worried that their own advocacy
group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, has launched an ad blitz to
combat what it describes as the "lunatic policy fringe"-folks like
Brownell and Banzhaf. Cofounder John Doyle acknowledges there is a
national weight problem and supports health-awareness and fitness
programs. But just mention taxes and lawsuits, and his blood boils.

Over to you now: Is our appetite for litigation more dangerous than our
appetite for junk? Should personal freedom override public health even
if it means higher insurance and taxes for all? How to strike the proper
balance? We look forward to hearing your thoughts. We can be reached at
letters@usnews.com. -The Editors


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