Excerpts from: IS IT YOUR FAULT I'M FAT?

The Economic Times June 21, 2003

WASHINGTON: Whose fault is it if you are fat? Yours, or the food industry's? A US House of Representatives panel heard emotional testimony on Thursday about a proposed law aimed at protecting restaurants against lawsuits from people who blame fast-food marketing for their obesity.

Critics say it would put the food industry in a special, protected category.

But two lawyers told the hearing that such protection is not necessary.

"If, as the industry repeatedly claims, these fat law suits are truly frivolous, the industry needs no Congressional protection," said John Banzhaf, a professor of law at George Washington University, whose 1970s crusades against the tobacco industry helped get cigarette commercials off the air.

"Numerous articles and reports show that the threat of fat lawsuits has already forced many food companies to begin making significant changes likely to reduce obesity such as healthier menu alternatives, better ingredient disclosure, appropriate warnings, etc."

McDonald's is fighting a lawsuit alleging the company promoted its calorie-laden food as being nutritious enough to eat every day. Victor Schwartz, head of the public policy group of the law firm Shook, Hardy and Bacon, and general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, said it would be hard for a plaintiff to prove a restaurant caused his obesity.

"First, if traditional rules are followed, the plaintiff is going to have to show that it is more probable than not that his or her obesity was caused by food, not by failure to exercise or other lifestyle choices, or genetics," he said.

"Second, the plaintiff will have to show that one specific purveyor of food caused his injury."

The World Health Organization says obesity is a growing epidemic across the world. Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, with a higher risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Advocacy groups say restaurants need to be forced into more clearly labeling their foods so people know just how fattening they are, and should make portions smaller.

"Representative Keller simply wants to pre-emptively take an entire industry off the hook, and make restaurants and food companies a special, protected class -- immune from the scrutiny of judges or juries," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.