Chronicle of Higher Education [04/19/02]

 Now that obesity is increasingly seen as a worldwide public-health problem like tobacco use, perhaps some of the techniques that have been so effective against smoking can also be used to help reduce the cost of obesity in the United States ("Obesity Problem Swells Worldwide," March 8). The techniques include higher health-insurance premiums for the obese (a marketplace solution) and increased taxes on foods loaded with fat and calories, with some of the proceeds used to fund healthy-eating messages (a legislative approach).

 However, if both those techniques fail to work ... , legal action -- which was used so effectively against smoking -- may be appropriate. Two lawsuits -- one (mine) against McDonald's for misrepresenting the fat in its French fries, and another against a food company for misrepresenting the fat and calories contained in its ice cream -- have already been certified as class actions, and have forced the companies to correct their misrepresentations. ... Other suits are being considered.

 While grieving families might not be as effective in filing suits for fat-caused deaths as was the case with smoking-caused deaths, because of the problems involved in proving causation in individual cases, states suing to recover added medical costs caused by obesity might do as well as those that brought similar suits for tobacco-related medical costs. ... People who scoffed at such lawsuits then are now eating crow, and lawyers farsighted enough to help bring the suits are collecting billions of dollars in fees.

John F. Banzhaf III
Professor of Law
George Washington University