The notorious John Banzhaf of the George Washington University School of Law is at it again. This time, the target is not “Ladies’ Night” at bars (a former object of litigation) but the scourge of fast food and junk food in general. Mr. Banzhaf and other lawyers have suggested that the widening of Americans’ waistlines is due to the malignant purveyors of Quarter Pounders and other fat-laden, artery-clogging, diabetes-inducing tasty treats. He and his compadres smell the tantalizing aroma of a massive class-action lawsuit that could hold the potential for multibillion-dollar damage awards even more than the successful action against the tobacco industry and on the same specious basis.
“As we’re getting more and more figures saying just how dangerous obesity is, people are wondering if tactics used against the tobacco industry very successfully and other problems such as guns less successfully could be used against the problem of obesity,” Mr. Banzhaf told the Associated Press. New York University Professor Marion Nestle argues, similarly, that fast-food joints and candy sellers “can’t behave like cigarette companies … Yet there’s a lot of people who benefit from people being fat and sick, and the whole setup is designed to make people eat more … So the response to the food industry should be very similar to what happened with the tobacco companies.”
Surgeon General David Satcher has provided some ammunition for this nascent legalistic jihad, correctly describing obesity as America’s soon-to-be No. 1 killer, costing perhaps 300,000 lives annually in the United States as a result of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and so on at a cost of $117 billion in 2000 alone. But is gluttony actionable?
The gist of it all, according to Mr. Banzhaf and company, is that health-care costs incurred by people who are overweight are the fault and responsibility of the junk-food and fast-food industries and that they therefore ought to be made to pay up. Mr. Banzhaf also advocates special fast-food/junk-food taxes to bump up the prices of consumables he thinks are “bad” so as to discourage people from over-indulging. But the idea that personal choice enters into any of this apparently never enters the thought-stream of the lawyers who are licking their chops in anticipation of another fat payday. Or they just don’t mind obviating the obvious: Eating fast food will not make you fat or unhealthy. Eating it excessively and to the exclusion of other foods will.
In sum, anything can be abused or misused. But does that mean sofa and TV manufacturers be held accountable for the “disease” of coach potato-ism? The idea that this potential for abuse constitutes actionable guilt on the part of the purveyors of such products as guns, tobacco, fast food and the like would be laughable if it were not for recent events such as the successful tobacco litigation and the very nearly successful gun litigation there to remind us how deadly serious all of this is.