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Junk Food/Obesity Lawsuits Alarm U.S. Food Giants

"Big Food" Lawsuits Can Help Trim America's Waistline

Commentary, Michele Simon,
Pacific News Service, Apr 01, 2004

Editor's Note: Obesity linked to poor diet and inactivity may soon overtake
smoking as the No. 1 cause of preventable death in America. Legal action
helped turn the tide against Big Tobacco and paved the way for important
public health victories. Now, 'Big Food' and the legislators it influences
are striking back against lawsuits they deem "frivolous."

On March 10, the so-called "Cheeseburger Bill," a ban on lawsuits blaming
the food industry for obesity and other health-related effects of eating too
much junk food, passed the House of Representatives. Along with 20 similar
state measures, the federal legislation is a deliberate, pre-emptive strike
aimed at fending off an imaginary onslaught of litigation. Orchestrating the
effort is a powerful cadre of food companies determined not to be victimized
by policy battles similar to those waged successfully against the tobacco
industry.

In the tobacco wars, a well-documented trail of industry malfeasance was
critical to shifting public opinion, giving policymakers the support they
needed to pass significant public health measures that have reduced smoking
rates and lessened exposure to secondhand smoke.

Whether or not it makes sense for someone who eats too many Big Macs to sue
McDonald's, what scares the food companies more than costly jury verdicts is
the prospect of the litigation process unearthing damning information about
dishonest industry practices, which opens the door to a plethora of new
government regulations.

Comparisons between Big Food and Big Tobacco are striking. The latest
statistics suggest that obesity linked to poor nutrition and inactivity will
soon overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in the
United States. Even more sobering, like tobacco companies, the junk-food
business has skillfully employed a host of strong-arm maneuvers to move its
products, including manipulating ingredients, targeting young children,
producing misleading advertising, concealing and distorting science,
influencing government regulations and intimidating public health advocates.

These are precisely the same tactics that were revealed in an avalanche of
damning documents discovered through litigation against the tobacco
industry. The similarity is hardly surprising, considering that giant food
and tobacco corporations are often one and the same. (Kraft Foods, for
example, is owned by Philip Morris.)

According to information uncovered by the Physicians Committee for
Responsible Medicine, some food manufacturers deliberately target consumers
who are vulnerable to certain food addictions. Recent studies reveal that
some foods that can cause health problems -- such as chocolate, sugar, meat
and cheese -- are physically addictive. Lawsuits could help uncover the
extent to which the food industry knew about and took advantage of these
addictive responses.

Behind the rhetoric of "frivolous lawsuits" (courts already disallow
baseless claims) and finger-pointing at greedy trial lawyers (only two suits
have been filed, both dismissed) lies a powerful, deep-pocketed industry
whose sway over our legislators cannot be underestimated. The federal
"Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act," as it is officially
known, is sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), an acknowledged fast-food
fan whose donors include the National Restaurant Association, a major
lobbying force behind the bill.

Congressman Keller defends the measure, claiming that it is "narrowly drawn"
and "does not immunize the food industry" because of exceptions allowed for
claims of false advertising, food mislabeling, adulterated food or tainted
food. But his argument is disingenuous, as those regulations are woefully
inadequate thanks to the lobbying efforts of the very same food industry.
That's precisely why litigation is necessary. When regulations fail to
protect consumers, the courtroom is often the only available option.

Though the first lawsuit filed against McDonald's in 2002 was great fodder
for late-night television shows, it has also sparked a national dialogue
about where responsibility for the nation's obesity epidemic lies. Just as
in the early days of the tobacco battle, "personal responsibility" is the
junk-food industry's mantra. Of course we are all ultimately responsible for
our own behaviors. But food choices don't take place in a vacuum. It's
unfair for an industry that spends $33 billion a year on marketing its
unhealthy products to blame individuals for succumbing to relentless
messages to eat more unhealthy foods.

To create the necessary groundswell for change, it is essential to reframe
the policy debate to incorporate proposals for increased government
regulation and corporate accountability. Litigation helps to accomplish that
goal.

The food industry learned from tobacco that litigation is a powerful public
interest tool. Without it, the public health movement that is just beginning
to seriously tackle the obesity epidemic could be set back decades, and may
never recover. Advocates and policymakers cannot let that happen; the public
health consequences are too great. Let's hope the Senate has better sense,
and kills the Cheeseburger bill.

PNS contributor Michele Simon is a public health attorney and founder and
director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit organization
based in Oakland, Calif.