CNN,  American Morning 7/3/03
A group of lawyers has set its sights on the fast food industry and public schools as part of an anti-obesity campaign.

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 the school 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.  


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 Center.