With obesity rates on the rise in America, some health activists are out to put fatty foods on par with tobacco - hoping to legislate their way to a healthier, thinner America.
But food industry lobbyists want to avoid tobacco's problems - lawsuits, regulations and years of negative publicity. They are gearing up to take on some of the same activists who took on cigarette makers.
"Some of the same legal tactics, by which I mean both legislative and litigative, which worked so well against big tobacco could also work well against the issue of obesity," John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who mounted some of the first anti-tobacco lawsuits, recently told Insight magazine. "I happen to think legislation would be a better way to go. But, if as with tobacco the legislators don't legislate, the lawyers will litigate," he added.
The food industry may hope to avoid the courtroom, but it isn't all that happy with the legislative solutions that are being bandied about either.
"As far as any regulatory mandates on our industry are concerned, we would definitely oppose anything like that," a Washington-based food industry lobbyist said.
Nevertheless, ideas for ending the nation's obesity epidemic abound in Washington - from nutrition education programs to a "fat tax." Stoking many of those ideas is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group.
The center attacks obesity from two directions. At one end, they hope to educate children and adults to live a healthier life, with better diets and more exercise. At the other, more controversial, end, the center would force wider exposure of nutritional content by fast food restaurants; keep fatty snack foods out of schools; and ban fast-food advertising aimed at children.
But the nutrition and health advocacy group faces opposition from the Bush administration, which wants to cut funding for some of the center's favorite programs, and from restaurant and food associations, who hope to prevent any further regulation on their industries.
"This issue has really been heating up," said Marge Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "While we've been interested in nutrition for a long time, the rising obesity rates are getting the attention of members of Congress."
The issue has also taken off in the press. While the president advocated health and fitness through speeches and a fair on the White House lawn, representatives of the food and restaurant industry squared off with nutrition advocates on television news shows.
The restaurants have engaged Rick Berman of Berman and Co. to run their public relations and media campaign. Five years ago Berman helped start the Guest Choice Network, now known as the Center for Consumer Freedom. Berman also runs the American Beverage Institute and other restaurant and business groups who seek to counter anti-tobacco, anti-alcohol, and anti-fat activists.
"Our whole mission is the public opinion side," said John Doyle, spokesman for the restaurant-sponsored consumer group. "We're not involved in any legislative initiatives."
Congressional regulation of fast food and snack food through so-called "fat taxes" and advertising bans is still far off, although it's being debated on news programs and in advertising campaigns.
But the Center for Science in the Public Interest has another goal - educational programs to promote nutrition - and another foe: federal budget watchdogs.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) launched a nationwide anti-obesity effort, called the Youth Media Campaign, this summer. But funding for the program has been in jeopardy almost since its inception.
Although the youth campaign received $125 million for fiscal year 2001, Congress cut the program last year by 50 percent. And President's Bush's budget this year provides for no further funding for the Youth Media Campaign.
"This administration talks about physical activity," Wootan said, "but at the same time they have zeroed out funding for the most important program."
Wootan's group coordinates 200 health organizations that are seeking to restore full funding to the CDC's youth health and fitness media program. The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity also includes the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Public Health Association.
"Members of Congress are much more aware. You hear them talk about obesity, junk food, people not being active any more," said Don Hoppert, director of congressional and federal affairs for the public health association.
While funding for the Youth Media Campaign has suffered, federal grants for state nutrition programs have increased from only a few million dollars in 1998 to $27.6 million this year. The alliance for nutrition and activity hopes to double that in the 2003 appropriations bill, increasing the number of states receiving funds from 12 to 20.
"For every state [to get funding], it would cost $150 million," Wootan said. "That's our [long-term] goal."
While the National Restaurant Association, National Council of Chain Restaurants and Grocery Manufacturers of America all oppose special taxes on fatty foods and soda, health advocates say those groups haven't opposed the nutrition education programs.
"The prevention programs suffer more from neglect than abuse," Wootan said. "Prevention is extremely important, but it's rarely urgent."
While food industry lobbyists oppose regulatory mandates, they are not lobbying against the nutrition legislation that Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) are expected to introduce soon.
"The National Restaurant Association has always been supportive of healthy lifestyles," said Allison Whitesides, a restaurant association lobbyist. "All foods are good, and all foods can fit into a healthy diet."
But if the Center for Science in the Public Interest has its way, stronger legislation will come soon. "Our investment in disease prevention in this country is pathetic," Wootan said. "Two-thirds of premature deaths are due to three things: poor diet, physical activity and tobacco."