Advocates meet to plan Big Mac
attack on fat
THE WASHINGTON TIMES 6/22/03
BOSTON — Trial lawyers, public health officials and
consumer advocates chewed the fat yesterday about how to successfully sue
and regulate the fast-food industry for serving unhealthy foods.
At an obesity litigation conference in Boston, about
120 attendees discussed planned lawsuit methods similar to ones used to sue
tobacco companies. Those methods included using guerrilla lawsuits — several
types of unexpected filings — against food companies, fast-food chains and
restaurants, and pushing the envelope with cases that appear "frivolous"
to get bigger results and larger settlements.
"Remember, many social movements were kick-started
by litigation," such as civil rights, environmental, sexual discrimination
and tobacco laws, said John Banzhaf III, a conference speaker.
Mr. Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor,
led the charge against tobacco companies through the Public Health Advocacy
Institute, and is encouraging lawyers to commit to suing fatty-foods makers
and restaurants for millions.
"I don't profit from these suits, but other attorneys
will, and that may be the incentive they need to take on an organization,"
such as fast-food giant McDonald's, which already has paid more than $12
million to settle a fat-content lawsuit, he said.
But foods with high calorie and cholesterol content
weren't the only things being grilled in the auditorium of Shillman Hall
at Northeastern University.
Some health advocates also wanted to ban food advertisements
geared to children, simplify nutritional labels at restaurants and litigate
against public schools that supply soft drinks and unhealthy foods.
"There is no one lawsuit that will solve the obesity
problem that has become an epidemic," said Michael Jacobson, executive director
of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy
"It's going to take a whole lot of lawsuits to make
a difference in public policy that will affect the dietary habits of the
thousands that suffer obesity-related disease," he said.
U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher called obesity
the largest preventable epidemic in 2001, citing 300,000 annual deaths that
cost taxpayers more than $117 billion in medical costs.
About 60 percent of adults and 13 percent of children
are clinically obese, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and
Their condition makes them more susceptible to diabetes,
hypertension, gall bladder disease and certain cancers.
Most of the strategy at the eight-hour session focused
on ways to compare junk food to tobacco as an addictive drug that makes obesity
more of a situational occurrence than one of personal choice.
Mr. Banzhaf cited a study in the February edition
of New Scientist magazine that reported foods with fat or sugar cause changes
in the brain often associated with addictive drugs.
But McDonald's did not inform customers in the past
about the fat contents in foods that were considered healthy, said Richard
Daynard, a conference sponsor and chairman of the tobacco products liability
project at the Public Health Advocacy Institute.
"There was deceptive advertising about McDonald's
fillet-of-fish and McNuggets, which had more calories than a burger," Mr.
So far, there have been seven lawsuits filed against
major food companies concerning fat intake and obesity.
Three of the cases have been settled, including a
case against McDonald's regarding the use of beef fat in its french fries,
a misrepresentation claim that snack-food company Pirate Booty inaccurately
reported its product calories, and a Florida ice cream company that underreported
its saturated fat.
Still, Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition
professor, said America has too much food and should have some regulations.
"There is an overabundance of food in this country
... most people eat more than they should because of it," Ms. Nestle said.
Mr. Banzhaf said at the conference that a series
of lawsuits is expected to be filed later next week.
"This type of litigation is picking up speed and
the food industry is worried," he said.