Excerpts from: Lawyers,
officials study fat lawsuits
THE WASHINGTON TIMES 6/20/03
Lawyers will gather this weekend with public health
officials to plan how to sue fast-food chains for obesity and make more money.
The Obesity Lawsuit Conference, which starts today
in Boston, is aimed at putting fast-food chains on the defensive and "encouraging
trial lawyers to become involved in lawsuits where they can make money,"
said John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of law at George Washington University
and the activist spearheading the effort.
The conference comes one day after a House Judiciary
commercial and administrative law subcommittee hearing on a bill introduced
by Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, titled the "Personal Responsibility
in Food Consumption Act" aimed at protecting food companies from the "frivolous
The "sue fat movement," which Mr. Banzhaf pioneered,
has not won in court but has achieved three settlements totaling more than
$14 million. The first and largest was $12 million — a McDonald's settlement
that put fat lawsuits on the map last year. The other was a settlement with
Pirate Booty, a snack-food company that paid more than $3 million. Both lawsuits
charged that the companies deliberately lured customers to unhealthy behavior
for economic gain.
Because of precedents set by huge tobacco verdicts,
proponents maintain that certain foods containing sugar or fat also have
addictive effects. Plaintiff lawyers argue that certain food companies add
ingredients to make their products more tasty and habit-forming.
A January 2003 American Medical Association report
shows that 25 percent of adults are clinically obese — their overweight condition
makes them susceptible a variety of health risks, including hypertension,
cardiovascular disease, psychological distress and social stigmatization.
The report also said about 14 percent of children and 12 percent of adolescents
Mr. Banzhaf dismissed suggestions that obesity is
the result of profligate eating.
"Virtually everyone agrees obesity and obesity-related
diseases occurred suddenly in the past 15 to 20 years," he said.
But weaknesses in personal responsibility are not
to blame for America's "epidemic of obesity," Mr. Banzhaf said.
In addition to the fast-food and snack-food industries,
the next target for Mr. Banzhaf is the classroom.
Pepsi, for example, has contracts with public schools
that stipulates the schools may sell only the company's drinks on campus.
This encourages poor eating habits early on, he said.
"Fast-food companies are certainly at the top of
the list, but we're also suing school boards for selling soft drinks," he