Tuesday, March 9, 2004

In today’s litigious society, a fine line commonly separates comedy from tragedy. Take, for example, an article published in August 2000 in the satirical, on line newspaper, The Onion, headlined, “Hershey’s ordered to pay obese Americans $135 billion.” Four years ago, this was the stuff of humor. Now it’s the stuff of class-action lawyers.

We would like to return to the days when such headlines were genuinely humorous. The House votes today on the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, that would block frivolous lawsuits against food manufacturers, sellers and distributors. Around Capitol Hill, the bill has been nicknamed the “cheeseburger bill,” because of its emphasis on protecting fast-food companies from obesity-related lawsuits. The legislation, however, isn’t limited to fast-food purveyors. It would also protect grocery stores, all restaurants and even the guy on the street peddling hotdogs. The universal coverage of the bill is very deliberate; especially if one understands the locust-like nature of class-action lawyers and the nanny police who encourage them. Today they might — and do — sue McDonald’s for hooking kids on fries like a drug dealer pushes heroin; tomorrow it could be Safeway, for stocking Hostess Cupcakes at irresistible prices — that is, if Hostess is even in business. As Sen. Mitch McConnell said last year, “If it weren’t so frightening it would be funny.”

The good news is that the House bill should pass easily today, probably reflecting the view of the 89 percent of Americans who oppose obesity-related lawsuits. The Senate bill sponsored by Mr. McConnell is still in the Judiciary Committee, which makes the prospect of President Bush signing anything resembling tort reform this year uncertain, but not impossible.

Blocking tort-reform efforts at every turn are the nanny police who argue that protecting “Big Food” exposes helpless consumers to temptations and dangers beyond their personal control. Organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, both of which are advocates for blaming “Big Food” for the nation’s obesity problems, like to give new life to that bromide of corporate protectionism, all but dismissing the role of personal responsibility in a free market. Like most jokes, if we had to explain this one, it would cease to be funny.

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