Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Food lawsuits are a growing trend in litigation for weight-conscious Americans, panelists said yesterday at a conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

Called “Obesity, Individual Responsibility and Public Policy,” the all-day discussion’s gist was that America’s obesity problems have changed from a matter of personal choice and willpower to one of government policy and public-disclosure laws.

Obesity is already the subject of lawsuits, as in a claim brought against the fast-food giant McDonalds by eight overweight New York youngsters who claimed they were misled about the fat content of its Big Macs and Happy Meals.

The case was dismissed in January, but more claims by Americans blaming fast food for their extra pounds may be in the offing. Speakers likened such suits’ prospects to those of successful claims filed against the tobacco industry.

The new, untested weapon in obesity lawsuits, said AEI resident scholar Dr. Sally Satel, is the assertion that fatty foods are as habit-forming as nicotine.

“The term ‘addiction’ can be stretched until it’s meaningless,” she said. Michael Greve, another AEI scholar, predicted soft-drink manufacturers will be targeted by class-action suits charging that their products are too temptingly displayed in supermarkets.

He reminded listeners that legislation is being introduced in New York and Maine requiring all restaurants to disclose the calorie and fat content of every dish on the menu.

“It won’t be too long before state attorney generals get in on this,” he said. “There’s too much money on the table.”

Two-thirds of all Americans are overweight, U.S. Surgeon Gen. Richard H. Carmona said, and 15 percent of all Americans under 18 are clinically obese based on a body mass index. Minority groups are the hardest hit: 23 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of blacks are obese, and one-third of all American high schoolers get little or no physical activity at all.

“We’ve grown up off the playground to the Play Station,” he said. But he did not advocate litigation against come-hither food ads, asserting there are “no villains” in the food industry.

Genes play a part, said Ruth Kava, director of the American Council of Science and Health. If both parents are obese, there’s an 80 percent chance their children will be as well.

But Kelly Brownell, founder of Yale University’s Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, argued that Americans are overwhelmed with constant reminders of food. Sugary soft drinks and snacks are widely available in vending machines in public schools; food courts are ubiquitous at malls; most gas stations now include mini-marts, and there’s even a new style of grocery cart outfitted to hold one’s coffee latte, he said.

“Twenty-five percent of all vegetables eaten in the United States are French Fries,” he said. Showing a slide of baby bottles outfitted with soft-drink logos, he said, “We’ve given [soft-drink] companies a free pass to our children. Something needs to be done about this.”

He likened fast-food mascot Ronald McDonald to smoking icon Joe Camel, saying, “The food industry is behaving in the same way the tobacco industry has been behaving for the past 35 years.”

But John E. Calfee of AEI said food ads are not the problem and that even a stack of warnings won’t make people eat less.

“A lot of people are simply ingesting more calories than they are used to,” he said.

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