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States Pass Bills to Protect Junk Food Companies from Obesity Lawsuits

Reuters
States push bills to deflect food lawsuits
Tuesday March 2, 2004

By Deborah Cohen

CHICAGO, March 2 (Reuters) - State lawmakers are moving fast to introduce
legislation to shield big names like McDonald's as well as small,
independent food companies around the country against lawsuits by people
claiming their fare made them fat.

At least 20 states -- including California, Florida, Colorado and
Pennsylvania -- are vetting bills to protect companies against what
supporters call frivolous, potentially costly suits that would hold an
industry accountable for decisions they claim are matters of personal
choice.

Last summer, a Louisiana bill became law, banning court action blaming the
food industry for making people overweight. There is a bill before the South
Dakota governor, and similar legislation in Wisconsin, Illinois and several
other states could come up for a vote within days.

"It's a good bill to protect small business," said State Rep. George Scully,
an Illinois Democrat and co-sponsor of his state's legislation. "It
encourages people to take responsibility for their own health."

The legislation, often dubbed "The Commonsense Consumption Act," in most
cases seeks to protect restaurants, packaged food makers, distributors,
advertisers and others from civil liability for an individual's weight gain
or related health problems caused by the consumption of specific foods.

In some instances, it is part of a broader package of state tort reform.

"My sense is that it's certainly of concern to the industry and also to the
public health advocates," said Amy Winterfeld, who tracks obesity policy for
the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's changing by the
minute."

DETRACTORS CALL BILLS PREMATURE

Detractors say the flurry of state activity is premature, as only a few
anti-obesity cases have come before the courts. They also contend that big
companies should be held accountable for foods that contribute to rising
obesity trends in the United States, where more than half the population is
considered overweight or obese.

Last year alone, the cost of treating weight-related health problems such as
heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer and arthritis reached an
estimated $75 billion.

"There has been tremendously heavy lobbying by the food and restaurant
associations because they know they might be vulnerable," said John Banzhaf
III, a George Washington University law professor who has been building a
case against the corporations he says produce and market foods that are
addictive in nature.

The corporate role in public health has been in the foreground in recent
months, fueled in part by a high-profile lawsuit against McDonald's filed
last year by several teenagers who blamed the largest fast-food maker's
hamburgers for making them fat. The case, which sought class-action status,
was twice thrown out of federal court.

The state bills are intended in part as a backstop against similar federal
legislation.

In February, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Personal
Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, designed to prohibit frivolous
lawsuits blaming restaurants or food manufacturers for obesity-related
health problems.

Sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, a Florida Republican, H.R. 339 was being
scheduled for a vote by the full House. Keller amended the bill to mirror
the Commonsense Consumption Act, introduced in the Senate by Kentucky
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

But legal experts said federal legislation faces some hurdles.

"Things move much more slowly," said Rick Berman, a lobbyist for major
restaurant companies. "It will be more difficult ... especially in an
election year."

State lawmakers say they are indeed bracing for more lawsuits, concerned
that Banzhaf and a host of trial lawyers appear committed to building
momentum through a series of public awareness campaigns.

"The free market needs to decide this, not courts and lawmakers," said Rep.
Dan Vrakas, a Wisconsin Republican sponsoring his state's legislation.
"Frivolous lawsuits clog our courts."

Raised in a family of restaurateurs, Vrakas was lobbied by the Wisconsin
Restaurant Association to introduce legislation blocking obesity claims.

Sara Stinski, a spokeswoman for the association, said many of the
independent restaurants among the state's 7,000 members could be wiped out
defending such a legal threat.

"Our argument is just because they haven't been filed yet doesn't mean
Wisconsin is safe, or any state is safe," she said.