BOSTON (June 19) Reuters - Some of the people who took Joe Camel and the
Marlboro Man to court will meet this weekend to discuss doing the same to the
likes of Ronald McDonald and other well-known faces of the food industry.
Law professor Richard Daynard of Boston's Northeastern University and
Washington lawyer John Banzhaf are among the anti-tobacco crusaders due to
attend a conference in Boston that will examine legal approaches to fight
Their argument? Just like cigarette makers hooked smokers with nicotine and
went after teens with hip advertising, food companies have addicted millions of
Americans on cheap, high-calorie products -- causing an obesity epidemic that
sucks more than $90 billion from the nation's health care system each year.
The sort of legal approach they envision would go far beyond a few consumers
accusing McDonald's of making them fat, or last month's widely publicized but
short-lived lawsuit against Kraft Food Inc. that sought a ban on Oreo cookies
because of purported health risks.
But the possibility of a new wave of tobacco-style litigation has provoked
outrage in the food industry, triggered a noisy debate over personal
responsibility and even stirred the U.S. Congress to get involved.
A U.S. House of Representatives panel heard emotional testimony on Thursday
about a proposed law that would protect restaurants against lawsuits from
people who blame fast-food marketing for their obesity.
MARKETING STRATEGIES UNDER SCRUTINY
Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a Washington lobby
group that represents hundreds of food makers, said the real purpose of the
Boston meeting was to come up with new ways for lawyers to line their pockets.
"They're going to sit down and talk about who should pay for the Learjets they
used to fly into Boston," she said. "A lawsuit isn't going to help anybody lose
one single pound or improve any person's health."
Ben Kelley is among those organizing this weekend's conference, where
participants will be asked to sign an affidavit vowing to keep secret potential
Kelley, a visiting professor at Tufts University and head of the Public Health
Advocacy Institute, said that with childhood obesity rates skyrocketing, the
meeting will look at the ways food companies promote their products to
"It is necessary to understand how the companies that make high-density,
low-cost food market it very aggressively to schools and kids," he said. "We
need to know what they have known about the impact of those strategies on
Northeastern's Daynard said there may be appropriate grounds for a lawsuit if
it can be shown that fast food outlets knew that their marketing was
contributing to overeating and either did nothing or exploited that knowledge
"The food companies are really quite deceptive in the kinds of information they
give about their products so that you have the McDonald's -- I used to take my
kids there and I did not want red meat so I would get the chicken or the fish
and it turns out both are higher in calories and fat than the Big Mac," Daynard
Washington-based attorney John Coale, one of the chief architects of the
tobacco master settlement who has also taken on gun makers on behalf of several
cities, said he would not attend the Boston meeting because of a prior
engagement but supports its aims.
"It's not going to work if you take obese people and blame McDonald's for
everything," he said. "But the issue that does have legs is kids."
Coale said he has "no doubt" that food companies have a strategy to hook
children on fatty foods, but is unsure whether the issue is best decided by
lawmakers or by courts.
"You've got clowns, you've got happy meals -- and it's OK in moderation but
it's gotten to the point where it's overkill," he said. "Still, whether it
rises to the level of a good lawsuit remains to be seen."