Sunday, June 22, 2003

BOSTON — More than 100 lawyers and consumer advocates yesterday pledged a broad series of lawsuits against fast-food chains, food manufacturers and even school boards that sell high-calorie soft drinks without offering healthier choices.

On the final day of an obesity-litigation conference here, the lawyers and advocates, many of them veterans of the legal assault on Big Tobacco, yesterday mapped out a plan to sue companies that advertise and sell food contributing to obesity without disclosing information to consumers.

“We’re going into a more-mature phase with this social movement,” said John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor who led lawsuits against the nation’s major tobacco companies.

In 1998, beset by litigation, the nation’s four major tobacco companies reached an unprecedented $246 billion legal settlement with state governments, to help cover costs of smoking-related illnesses.

While he would not name the companies the lawyers will attack, Mr. Banzhaf said the litigation will be aimed at changing public policy to combat obesity.

Some of the lawsuits will target public schools that maintain “pouring rights” contracts with soft-drink suppliers such as Coca Cola Inc. and PepsiCo.

Other suits will charge fast-food companies with misrepresentation of their nutrition labeling and information disclosure.

“The goal is not to put fast-food companies out of business, but move them to offer healthier alternatives and give consumers important product information,” Mr. Banzhaf said.

Mindy Kursban, a chief attorney with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, left the conference with some new ideas to use in her suit against Tyson Foods Inc.

The District-based nonprofit health organization is suing the Arkansas poultry supplier over assertions that its chicken is “heart healthy,” Ms. Kursban said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of insight from other attorneys on obesity-related cases,” she added.

A Tyson Foods spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Richard Daynard, an organizer of the two-day litigation workshop, said he expected lawyers to have a better plan on what legal tactics to use when taking on a food manufacturer.

“They need to know what suits will be productive and what they will have to do to rise above the initial hurdles,” said Mr. Daynard, a Northeastern University law professor.

Some of those tactics will be similar to ones used in the tobacco lawsuits, Mr. Banzhaf noted. He added that attorneys may also go after government organizations such as the U.S. Agriculture Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration for not doing more in the “war against obesity.”

About 65 percent of adults and 13 percent of children in America are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such people are more likely to have diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers.

The lawyers will work under the Public Health Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit group, and will coordinate global litigation efforts.

“Obesity is a worldwide problem and we want to make sure companies aren’t moving harmful practices abroad as a result of these suits,” Mr. Banzhaf said.

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