- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

Some Washington-area residents think the new crop of lawsuits targeting the ice-cream industry is leaving out a key ingredient to junk-food consumption: personal responsibility.

In fact, the latest step in the self-termed “sue fat movement” had some people laughing in their dulce de leche milkshakes.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Steve Patrick, 40, of Columbia, Md., who recently ate a cup of Cherry Garcia in Ben & Jerry’s in Georgetown. “Everyone knows Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs is a premium ice cream. You can’t be premium without having butterfat and sugar.”

Mr. Patrick’s opinion reflects those who think people should not blame anyone but themselves for their weight gain.

This new battle in the fat lawsuit war will bring Ben, Jerry, Haagen-Dazs and other ice-cream makers to court if they don’t properly display the fat content of their ice cream on menus in their stores.

Last week, John Banzhaff III, a law professor at George Washington University and leader of the movement, sent out letters to six major ice-cream companies. The letter warned that ice-cream companies will face litigation if they do not put the fat content on menu boards. The letters also were signed by Michael F. Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group in the District.

“It isn’t fair to blame companies for something that you’ve chosen to eat,” said Tory Keller, 41, who was eating ice cream at a food court in Tyson’s Corner. “I eat it, and I know it’s fattening.”

Her friend, Judith-Anne Martin, 31, enjoying chocolate ice cream in a waffle cone, said she knows she is eating a high-caloric food, but chooses to do it anyway.

“When you eat ice cream, you know you’re not eating an apple or an orange,” she said.

Some people think this latest step in the obesity lawsuit crusade is simply another cash cow for lawyers. The movement has been compared, both by the opponents and Mr. Banzhaff, as the next big tobacco. He boasted recently that $246 billion was made from major tobacco litigation and that a similar amount could be made, mostly by settlements, in obesity lawsuits.

“They found their niche,” Miss Martin said of the lawyers. “Although I don’t agree with their motives, they are smart, smart lawyers.”

Mr. Banzhaff said he does not make any money from the settlements, which have totaled more than $14 million, but passes the word on to other trial lawyers. “I don’t ever see a dime,” he said.

Mr. Banzhaff has made no attempt to hide the fact that going after ice-cream companies is a good way for trial lawyers to make money.

Not one obesity case has gone to court, but three have been settled out of court for more than $14 million. The first and largest was $10 million — a McDonald’s settlement that put the fat lawsuits on the map last year.

Mr. Banzhaff said recently that these lawsuits could encourage “trial lawyers to become involved in lawsuits where they can make money.”

But he still refers to these lawsuits as “public interest,” citing obesity as a major killer.

“This is not a public-interest issue, just extortion,” Mr. Patrick said, adding that Mr. Banzhaff and his group are making a “bad habit” themselves of suing the fast-food companies.

The new targets of the sue fat movement are Baskin-Robbins Inc., Cold Stone Creamery, the Haagen-Dazs Shoppes Inc., TCBY, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc. and Friendly Ice Cream Corp.

“Everybody knows that ice cream is fattening,” Chara Elise said as she ate a chocolate-and-vanilla-swirled frozen yogurt cone — she thought it was soft-serve ice cream.

A Ben & Jerry’s employee said she hardly ever eats the product that she scoops for others.

“Ice cream makes me fat,” said Mieia Edmonds, 16. “Too much of anything isn’t good for you.”

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