- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Eat too much calorie-laden fast food, get fat, file a lawsuit and collect a gazillion dollars.

Sounds good, but not in Maryland if lawmakers approve a bill proposed by Delegate John Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat who says people should be responsible for the decisions they make about what food they put in their mouths.

Mr. Arnick’s bill, HB15, called the Common Sense Food Consumption Act, would prohibit people who blame their obesity on the food they buy in restaurants and grocery stores from filing lawsuits to collect damages for their health problems.

“It would prohibit frivolous suits based on, ‘I got fat from eating your cookies or doughnuts,’” Mr. Arnick said at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

His bill got a skeptical reception from some committee members who questioned whether there is a need for the law because there is no evidence such a lawsuit has ever been filed in Maryland.

“I would agree with you that such a suit would be frivolous,” said Delegate Luiz Simmons, Montgomery County Democrat. “I don’t think that we need, in the absence of any demonstrable problem, to rush into legislation.”

Mr. Arnick said 14 states have passed similar laws, and at least 10 are considering bills on the subject this year. Similar legislation also was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March, but nothing was done by the Senate.

The wave of bills was touched off by two class-action suits filed in New York, blaming the McDonald’s Corp. for making people fat. The suits were dismissed by a federal judge.

While committee members made light of the issue and questioned the need for a law, witnesses for restaurants and grocery stores say they take the threat of lawsuits seriously.

“We are very concerned about these cases,” said Melvin Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

A lawsuit, even a frivolous one, could drive some small restaurants out of business, he said.

Bruce Bereano, lobbyist for Safeway Inc., said activists are gearing up to make obesity the subject of the next wave of lawsuits, as they did for smoking.

“There is nothing wrong with doing something that is preventative,” Mr. Bereano said. “People love to file lawsuits. Bills like this are needed.”

Environmentalists and government officials say the Ehrlich administration’s plan to replenish Project Open Space makes Maryland a national leader in protecting land from development.

The program was established to buy and preserve open spaces for future generations and is funded by some of the transfer taxes buyers pay during house, business or land transactions.

However, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, have diverted about $180 million from the fund to help balance the budget.

In the new budget he presented to the legislature Wednesday, Mr. Ehrlich began what his budget secretary, James “Chip” DiPaula, said is a five-year plan to return all the money to Program Open Space.

Twenty-five percent of the tax, about $43 million according to a legislative analysis of the budget, would be spent to preserve open spaces during the fiscal 2006, which begins July 1.

Mr. DiPaula said the governor intends to increase that to 33 percent the following year and, if he is elected to a second term, 50 percent in 2008, 75 percent in 2009 and the entire amount by 2010.

Environmentalists are glad to see some of the money going back to its intended use, but are not satisfied with the amount.

“We are definitely disappointed that there wasn’t a larger percentage of funds going into it,” said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

She hopes that when the governor submits his capital budget this month, he will include some additional money for open space acquisition that would be raised by selling bonds.

When Mr. Ehrlich diverted all of the transfer tax money out of Program Open Space last year, he cushioned the loss by providing $43 million in bond money for the program.

Mr. DiPaula said that even in difficult financial times Mr. Ehrlich has made an extraordinary commitment to protect farms and forests from development.

“Maryland leads the nation in land preservation and will continue to make significant progress in that regard,” he said.

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