- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

A group of trial lawyers vowed that a Senate bill introduced yesterday won’t end the momentum of the obesity-related lawsuits that are targeting fast-food giants, food manufacturers and public school systems.

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s bill would prohibit liability lawsuits in which the plaintiff says the food sold by a company or restaurant caused weight gain or obesity-related problems.

“It’s important not to blame poor eating habits on someone else,” the Kentucky Republican said after introducing the legislation.

The bill would prohibit obesity-related lawsuits, such as a current litigation against McDonald’s Corp. for contributing to the obesity of two children in New York.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet, who threw out the obesity claims in January, has not ruled whether other false-advertising claims in the suit can go forward.

Mr. McConnell’s bill, similar to a House measure, would allow conventional litigation, such as false-advertising charges or injuries by food consumption.

But the Public Health Advocacy Institute, a Boston nonprofit health-advocacy group that has led the lawsuit efforts, says the measure would immunize food companies and fast-food chains from credible health claims.

Richard Daynard, a member of the group’s executive committee, said some scientists are reporting more evidence of addictive substances in fried and fatty foods.

“We may find that fast-food chains have done something comparable to tobacco companies in tampering with their ingredients, and then the industry wouldn’t be able to be sued because of this bill,” Mr. Daynard said.

He added the tort reform would have a “limited impact” on the group’s overall strategy, which includes suing restaurants for not disclosing nutritional information and suing food makers for advertising to children.

“If these food companies haven’t done anything wrong, then they don’t need this blanket immunity,” he added.

John Cady, president and chief executive officer of a national food-industry trade group, said “these frivolous lawsuits” hurt the industry by damaging a brand and product category without helping the plaintiff’s obesity.

“There is a problem with obesity in America, and the food processors should do a better job of informing the public on nutrition and how to eat healthier,” said Mr. Cady of the National Food Processors Association.

But the effort should not be mandated by the courts, he added. “Hopefully, this is the first step in getting lawyers to rethink this whole strategy of blaming the food industry.”

Excess weight accounted for about 20 percent of the 90,000 cancer deaths in the past year, according to the American Cancer Society. More than half of the country’s adults and 13 percent of its children are overweight.

Mr. McConnell noted that he is expecting a battle in the Senate, which has failed to get enough votes to curb lawsuits on medical malpractice.

“The Senate has been resistant to litigation reform in the past. But I think this issue has a better chance because there are enough people across the board who think these type of lawsuits are utterly absurd,” he said.

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