Excerpts from: Lawyers, officials study fat lawsuits

By Anna Bakalis and Charles Hurt

    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 lawsuits."
    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 are overweight.
    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 said.