- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

The leader of the anti-obesity lawsuit movement is threatening physicians-in-training with lawsuits if they don’t warn obese patients about their excessive weight.

George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf III, who has led efforts to sue fast-food chains for contributing to America’s extra weight, is scheduled to speak tomorrow morning at the annual convention for the American Medical Student Association.

Mr. Banzhaf said he will warn the aspiring doctors to be on guard for lawsuits that could stem from physicians failing to tell patients they are obese and the risks of carrying that additional weight. Patients also could sue for not being advised to try appropriate treatments or behavioral programs, he said.

The trial lawyers group, which has spent the past few years suing the food industry, was “thinking of doing this some time ago, but now we have a federal report that provides us with a stronger base” for the type of case, Mr. Banzhaf said.

That report recommended that clinicians screen all adults for obesity. It also suggested that doctors offer obese patients intensive counseling and lifestyle changes to promote sustained weight loss or refer the patients to other clinicians for those services.

“This report very much spells out the standards. Obesity is a medical condition and proper interventions by doctors can be effective,” Mr. Banzhaf said earlier this week.

People with a body-mass index of 30 or higher are considered obese, while those with an index of 25 to 29 are considered overweight. A healthy body-mass index is 19 to 25.

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A report released this week said that Americans’ life spans could drop by as much as five years in the next few decades because of problems arising from obesity, such as strokes, hypertension and diabetes.

The talk will come at the end of the association’s convention in Arlington, where about 1,200 members of the Reston trade group have met for the past few days.

Lenny Lesser, the association’s obesity coordinator, said the association invited Mr. Banzhaf to expose medical students to policy issues they will face. Mr. Banzhaf, who helped lead the charge against tobacco companies in 1990s, likened obesity suits to the class-action suits against cigarette manufacturers.

“Our job is to provide a multitude of information to our members to help them navigate health care policy and legal affairs,” said Mr. Lesser, a third-year medical student.

While Mr. Lesser said he doubted the lawsuits are the best way to change health care practices, he said the association has no position on the obesity lawsuits.

Mr. Banzhaf said he will point to a December 2003 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force report as evidence the type of case could hold up in court.

With an ordinary medical-malpractice lawsuit, “courts are always on the lookout for established standards in medical care that either come from medical sources or the government,” Mr. Banzhaf said.

The task force said in the report it found insufficient evidence to conclude if low-to-moderate counseling or behavioral intervention by a doctor works or does not work for obese adults. The report also did not make any recommendations for obese children, who are a prime group of plaintiffs for trial lawyers.

The recently reinstated obesity lawsuit against McDonald’s involves New York children. Obesity-related litigation also has targeted school districts selling junk food in vending machines and food manufacturers that advertise fatty foods to youngsters.

Mr. Banzhaf said he also plans to advocate the role class-action lawsuits have had in changing America’s health care system. “Unfortunately, one of the ways to make serious changes in society is through a lawsuit,” he said.

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