Excerpts from: Big-tobacco foe: fast food nearly as addictive as drugs; lawyer serves notice he'll sue to force dietary warning
Nation's Restaurant News May 26, 2003

A prominent anti-tobacco trial lawyer who is a successful litigant against McDonald's -- now charging that fast food is nearly as addictive as heroin -- is threatening class-action lawsuits against major chains unless they post warnings about the health consequences of habitual consumption.

"For a large number of people, a steady diet of fast food is almost as harmful and as difficult to resist as heroin is to an addict or nicotine is to a habitual cigarette smoker," attorney and law professor John Banzhaf claimed.

Banzhaf, best known for spearheading billion-dollar class-action victories over the tobacco industry and widely credited for the 1971 extinction of cigarette commercials from television, handed his warning to National Restaurant Association president Stephen C. Anderson in a letter during a debate between the two men at a national conference on obesity.

The letter, Banzhaf explained, had the weight of an official legal document that "served notice" on the restaurant industry that it has a social responsibility to inform customers of the potential dangers of fast food.

"All industries are required to keep up with safety and scientific research affecting their businesses and products," he said. "If you manufacture boilers, you'd keep up with all the advancements to make a safer boiler. By giving them this letter, I'm sending out a clear message that they are on notice."

"A heavy fast-food diet over time blocks the normal mechanism in the brain that produces hormones that tell us to stop eating when we are full," asserted Banzhaf, who teaches law at the George Washington University Law School.

Banzhaf's letter to Anderson, presented during the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, attributed his scientific understanding of food addiction to a recent article in New Scientist magazine, a London-based publication that reported findings about certain similarities in brain functioning between drug abusers and heavy users of fast food.

The article suggested in part that some people might actually experience "withdrawal symptoms" when forced to stop eating fast food over a period of time.

Sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and held at the National Press Club, the standing-room-only policy conference was attended by hundreds of dietitians and policy makers, including the Bush administration's top health officials -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark B. McClellan.

Banzhaf later remarked that he didn't know if his letter strategy would work, "but if this comes to court three months, six months, nine months, however long it may take, they won't be able to say they didn't know" about the reported addiction findings.
The National Food Policy Conference where Banzhaf and Anderson squared off took place amid a recent flurry of legislative, regulatory and legal developments aimed at fast food and snack food.

In California state legislators continued to assess a bill that would require fast-food and full-service chains to post signs saying that the nutritional content was available for all foods sold except those on menus for less than six months.

In Texas the state Senate's Education Committee expanded the scope of a bill to limit the amount of high-sugar and high-fat foods sold and served in public schools. Under the new provisions there would be specific times of the day, based on grade level, during which students could purchase soft drinks or snack food, and the products would have to be low in sugar, salt and fat.

"I can't sue to make people exercise more," Banzhaf said. "But we can do something about fast food."

Banzhaf, specializing in public-interest litigation throughout his career, has turned his legal expertise in recent years to allegations of liability among restaurant chains and snack food makers that are said to contribute to the nation's obesity problem. He currently is litigating a spate of suits against fast feeders and snack food manufacturers under product liability laws.

In March 2002, in an action brought by his students for class credit, he won a $ 12.5 million settlement against McDonald's for its alleged failure to disclose that its french fries contained beef fat. The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hindus, Muslims, vegetarians and others who said they had not known they were eating meat substances in an ostensible vegetable item.

Banzhaf, though widely criticized for his eagerness to sue corporations in order to change their behavior, defended those actions by observing that myriad obscure lawsuits had been responsible for the eventual passage of such legal landmarks as the Civil Rights Act and other statutes protecting voters and women.

"This is a movement," Banzhaf declared, "and it's just beginning, and one day some judge or some sympathetic jury is going to make history."