Sunday, September 19, 2004

BOSTON — A single lawsuit against the food industry is not enough to reduce the number of overweight and obese Americans, according to panelists at a weekend health law conference.

It will take numerous suits, federal laws and government regulations sweeping across the food and several nonfood industries to make a significant impact.

That message was the underlying theme for the conference on legal approaches to obesity that commenced here yesterday, sponsored by the Public Health Advocacy Institute. The second annual conference, made up of trial lawyers, dietitians and public-health advocates, follows a year in which several obesity-related suits have been filed against food manufacturers and fast-food chains.

While the suits — modeled after lawsuits that took on tobacco companies for causing health problems for smokers — were ultimately thrown out of court or withdrawn, the group said the success this anti-obesity movement has had in pressuring the food industry is already ahead of their expectations.

“We know that litigation ultimately wins,” said George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf III, one of the leaders for the obesity lawsuits. But Mr. Banzhaf pushed the 90 or so participants at Sherman Hall at Northeastern University yesterday to think beyond suing the food industry.

Mr. Banzhaf said he plans to talk at today’s panel about potential lawsuits such as suing doctors who do not warn and counsel obese patients at risk for triggering other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, gallbladder disease and various cancers.

Still, most of the discussion yesterday at the conference centered around addictive qualities in sugary foods and ways to regulate food advertising to children.

“What we see as a hallmark of addiction is loss of control and we see that in a lot of obese people who have lost control with eating,” said William Jacobs, anesthesiology and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida.

Mr. Jacobs, who works in the university’s brain institute, said obese subjects in his studies often demonstrate addiction symptoms such as preoccupation, relapses, narrowness of interests, loss of control and continued detrimental behaviors despite knowing the harm associated with excessive weight gain.

Princeton University psychology professor Bart Hoebel noted that rats in one study that were given sugary drink diets gave off brain receptors similar to those reported for rats that were given illegal narcotics such as cocaine and amphetamines.

Mr. Hoebel was quick to say the study did not conclusively find sugar addictive. “Food addiction is much milder than drug addiction and not everyone that indulges in it becomes obese,” he said.

Marshall Manson, spokesman for an Alexandria nonprofit advocacy group promoting individual freedoms, said the talk of more obesity-based lawsuits is troubling.

“We are worried that there has been some progress toward limiting choice and waving goodbye to personal responsibility,” said Mr. Manson with the Center for Individual Freedom. “It seems as if this group is running the same play book the tobacco lawyers did, except they’re dealing with a perfectly legal and healthy — if consumed in moderate proportions — product.”

The Northeastern University conference has more government backing this year. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, made opening remarks praising the group’s efforts to combat the obesity problem. He encouraged them to back bills he has sponsored to require nutritional labeling in restaurants and give back authority to the Federal Trade Commission to regulate food advertising.

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