- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Rick Berman is fed up with being told what to eat. He's weary of warnings about alcohol and tired of the moral indignation over smoking. So he's fighting back, standing up for the right to indulge without being scolded.

Mr. Berman organized his crusade 3 and 1/2 years ago by founding the Guest Choice Network, a coalition of more than 30,000 restaurant and tavern operators that works to preserve for consumers a full menu of dining and entertainment choices.

"There are a great number of people out there who don't like being dictated to, who know what decisions they are making," said Mr. Berman, 57, a lawyer who runs a research and communications firm.

The network targets so-called "nannies" food cops, health care enforcers, vegetarian activists, anti-tobacco forces and bureaucrats who tell others what's good for them.

It goes straight for the Achilles' heel of those "nannies" the funny bone.

"I tell people that I am using parody and satire to make my point," Mr. Berman said. "I'm not any different than Jay Leno and David Letterman; I'm just not as funny."

At www.guestchoice.com, the network pokes not-so-gentle fun at groups such as Greenpeace, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Mr. Berman believes that these groups exaggerate health issues to an unreasonable degree and have "a self-serving view of the world."

Included on the site is a list of the annual Guest Choice "Nanny Awards," bestowed upon those "who work tirelessly to restrict our food, beverage and lifestyle choices."

The 1999 Nanny of the Year Award went to the head of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for demanding a federal lawsuit similar to the anti-tobacco suit against the meat industry and fast-food restaurants.

"We have these groups that want to change the world to fit their image. A lot of this paternalism is eroding what this country is about," Mr. Berman said.

The network's archnemesis is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which rates a Web-site parody devoted solely to it, www.CSPInot.com.

"CSPI ought to be named the center for science not in the public interest," Mr. Berman said.

He said the network claims a victory over these groups when people realize there is no science behind the claims such as PETA's statement that drinking milk causes prostate cancer and start to discount the next report or study.

"Exposing the bad science and hysteria these various groups put out is a victory for us and a victory every day," Mr. Berman said. "Our victory comes from just shining a light on these groups."

Among his victories, Mr. Berman said, is stopping the proposed ban of peanuts on airlines and preventing a movement to arrest social drinkers.

The network is stepping up its fight, running a full-page ad in Nation's Restaurant News, the nation's largest restaurant trade publication, this week.

And the network continues to update its Web sites every day, keeping an eye out for any reports it finds silly enough to ridicule.

"Every day there is material that we are able to put up, of wacko statements and reports that these people are putting out worldwide," he said.

According to Mr. Berman, the relative aging of the population, along with the health concerns and fears that "nannies" play into, provides for "a public that is more vulnerable to these bogus claims."

"Rather than attacking the message, we attack the messenger. These messengers are lunatics … . The lunacy of some of these campaigns deserves to be parodied," Mr. Berman said.

Mr. Berman's prediction that the logic behind the recent tobacco lawsuits and settlements would act as a blueprint for other areas like caffeine, fattening foods, even perfume in public seemed eerily prescient after a recent study on caffeine.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said soft-drink manufacturers added caffeine to their products to addict consumers, not to enhance flavor as they claim.

The study was criticized for being too limited, but Mr. Berman said even studies and reports that may be discounted pose a danger.

"Sooner or later, someone will repeat the findings of the study without saying how small the sample base is, and that's how some of these myths get started," he said.

Mr. Berman, 57, attended Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky., and later attended law school at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He has lived in the metropolitan area for the past 14 years. Mr. Berman also acts as the general counsel for the American Beverage Institute, a trade organization that represents restaurants that serve alcohol.

The Guest Choice Network attempts to combat what Mr. Berman refers to as a psychological shift of a country against the product. "These groups have a game plan to denormalize choice. They don't have to ban [a choice]. They just make you uncomfortable, and you don't want to be judged," Mr. Berman said. "We are just trying to level the playing field."

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