- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Lawyers will gather this weekend with public health officials to plan how to sue fast-food chains for obesity and make more money.

The Obesity Lawsuit Conference, which starts today in Boston, is aimed at putting fast-food chains on the defensive and “encouraging trial lawyers to become involved in lawsuits where they can make money,” said John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of law at George Washington University and the activist spearheading the effort.

The conference comes one day after a House Judiciarycommercial and administrative law subcommittee hearing on a bill introduced by Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, titled the “Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act” aimed at protecting food companies from the “frivolous lawsuits.”

“In light of this year’s high-profile, ridiculous lawsuits against McDonald’s and makers of Oreo cookies, it’s high time Congress said enough is enough,” Mr. Keller said in a recent release. “We need to put the brakes on plans by the trial lawyers to make the restaurants and the food industry the next big tobacco.”

The “sue fat movement,” which Mr. Banzhaf pioneered, has not won in court but has achieved three settlements totaling more than $14 million. The first and largest was $12 million — a McDonald’s settlement that put fat lawsuits on the map last year. The other was a settlement with Pirate Booty, a snack-food company that paid more than $3 million. Both lawsuits charged that the companies deliberately lured customers to unhealthy behavior for economic gain.

Because of precedents set by huge tobacco verdicts, proponents maintain that certain foods containing sugar or fat also have addictive effects. Plaintiff lawyers argue that certain food companies add ingredients to make their products more tasty and habit-forming.

A January 2003 American Medical Association report shows that 25 percent of adults are clinically obese — their overweight condition makes them susceptible a variety of health risks, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, psychological distress and social stigmatization. The report also said about 14 percent of children and 12 percent of adolescents are overweight.

Obesity is not clearly defined by the AMA because of variations in body type and eating and dieting habits. Obesity, loosely defined, is when “excess body fat may put a person at health risk.”

“Not only do the lawsuits … fail to acknowledge the voluntary nature of the choices customers make, they also do not address the fundamental issue of personal responsibility,” Washington restaurateur Christianne Ricchi of Italian restaurant i Ricchi testified yesterday.

“While I am confident we will overcome all of these obstacles, the prospect of dealing with the legal fees alone from a potential lawsuit causes me great concern for the future of my business, my employees and our industry as a whole.”

Mr. Banzhaf dismissed suggestions that obesity is the result of profligate eating.

“Virtually everyone agrees obesity and obesity-related diseases occurred suddenly in the past 15 to 20 years,” he said.

Mrs. Ricchi said personal accountability is the real issue, and that by taking aim at restaurants they are limiting freedom of choice for Americans.

“My view as a business owner is that we’re here to offer options.”

While the target of obesity lawsuits are fast-food companies, Mrs. Ricchi said that if the lawsuits continue, small businesses like hers will be hurt.

But weaknesses in personal responsibility are not to blame for America’s “epidemic of obesity,” Mr. Banzhaf said.

Richard Berman, a proponent of Mr. Keller’s bill and director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, said the rise in obesity was more likely caused by the less-active lifestyle of modern America.

Even the 60 percent drop in smoking rates since 1985 is to blame, he said.

“Anyone who has stopped will tell you about how quitting smoking — a known appetite suppressant — triggers at least some weight gain,” he told the panel.

After the hearing, Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, chuckled over the irony that the lawyers seeking fat lawsuits are the same ones who pursued lawsuits against tobacco companies in a purportedeffort to curtail smoking.

“Surely, it’s reasonable to assign those lawyers proportionate blame,” Mr. Flake said. “I like that. Sue the lawyers.”

In addition to the fast-food and snack-food industries, the next target for Mr. Banzhaf is the classroom.

Pepsi, for example, has contracts with public schools that stipulates the schools may sell only the company’s drinks on campus. This encourages poor eating habits early on, he said.

“Fast-food companies are certainly at the top of the list, but we’re also suing school boards for selling soft drinks,” he said.

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