SEATTLE SCHOOL BOARD
CONTROVERY GETS NATIONAL ATTENTION
LEGAL COMMENTATOR WARNS: "POTENTIAL FOR A CASE HERE"
A group of lawyers has
set its sights on the fast food industry and public schools as part of an
HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, they have taken on Big Tobacco and won.
Now, a group of lawyers has set its sights on the fast food industry and
public schools as part of an anti-obesity campaign. For example, the Seattle
school board is being threatened with a lawsuit over its exclusive
vending machine contract with Coca-Cola.
But our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is objecting. He joins us right now.
What's the deal? Can you sue a high school for giving Coke to the kids?
Or having the vending machine, at least?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think what can you clearly do
and what's going on now is you can threaten a lawsuit, because school
boards aren't like other defendants. They're not worried about profits
so much. They have to run for office or they have to answer to the public
in some way. And obesity and fast food, and snacks, and -- is such a big
issue now, that these school boards who have relied
on fast food companies for a good deal of revenue in recent years are starting
to back away and say, you know, do we want to take the heat of making our
kids so fat?
COLLINS: But this is the same group of lawyers that got their names or made
their names during the litigation of the Big Tobacco in the '90s. I mean,
do they have a case here? Or is this kind of another publicity deal?
TOOBIN: There is potential for a case here. But I think it's important
to emphasize it's a long way from tobacco. Tobacco litigation had the support
of the Clinton administration. None of the so-called successors to the Big
Tobacco litigation have the support of the Bush administration.
And for all that we've talked, and there's been a lot of talk recently about
suing fast food companies, or suing snack makers, there has not been one single
successful lawsuit against them yet, much less against a school
board. [NOTE: Incorrect, see below]
So it's a long way from driving these people out of business.
COLLINS: So what's it about, then? Is it just intimidation? Enough to scare
boards, or the corporations, or maybe even the teenagers?
TOOBIN: Well, I think intimidation is one word. But education is another.
You know, I think the best way to resolve these things is without litigation.
And you know, I have to give these lawyers credit for raising these issues,
because, you know, they can go to the school board and threaten, say,
oh, we'll sue you if you don't get these soda machines out of your schools.
But, you know, if they do succeed in getting the
soda machines out of the schools without litigation, maybe that's the best
result of all.
COLLINS: But if the school board caves, then what
next? I mean, I wonder where this momentum will actually take the issue.
TOOBIN: Well, that's the interesting question. And that's where you start
to get into the business of, can they sue? Because school
boards are different. They are basically just trying to get lots,
you know, educate the kids.
When you start talking about the companies that are making money, we all
laughed about the lawsuit against McDonald's that was filed a few months
ago by the people who got fat eating Big Macs. But you know, these lawsuits
are starting to come. And the snack makers are feeling the heat.
McDonald's is moving away from artificial hormones involved in its beef.
Kraft had a big announcement limiting the size of its snacks, limiting marketing
in schools. So even though there have been no successful lawsuits so far,
the companies are running scared.
COLLINS: Do you think there might be like a revolt from the kids if they
can't get a hold of their Coke?
TOOBIN: The school boards are saying,
look, it's either we provide the snacks or they walk across eight lanes of
traffic to, you know, find a soda. So why not keep them in-house? I don't
know, I think kids, obviously, want salty snacks, want sweet snacks. But,
you know, they're also worried about getting fat, too, and I think there
is some momentum shifting in this issue.
NOTE: Mr. Toobin was apparently
unaware that four of the fat law suits have been successful so far.[SEE BELOW]
If he had been aware of these successes, he might have given even greater
weight to the threat of fat law suits against school boards.
SUCCESSFUL FAT LAW SUITS:
1. A class action law suit put together by law students of Professor John
Banzhaf charged McDonald's with failing to reveal a material fact: that its
french fries contained beef fat. Although McDonald's originally branded
the law suit as frivolous, the fast food giant eventually was forced to settle
by paying $12.5 million (most of which went to charity), publicly disclosing
and warning that its french fries contained beef fat, and apologizing on
its web site.
2. Robert's American Gourmet Foods was forced to settle a class action law
suit against it for almost $4 million for failing to disclose all of the
fat and calories in one of its so-called diet foods. As a result of
the settlement, the disclosure is now being made.
3. Kraft Foods, the maker of Oreo Cookies, was sued because its cookies contained
trans fatty acids (transfat). The suit, which did not seek monetary
damages, charged that failure to disclose this violated California
law. As soon as the law suit began receiving publicity, Kraft
agreed to work to remove the trans fat from its Oreo Cookies. Having
achieved its objectives, the suit was then dropped.
4. The New York City School System has agreed to ban soda, hard candy, donuts,
cookies, sugar-filled phony fruit drinks, and other non-nutritious foods,
and the initial catalyst was a law suits brought by the Community Food Resource