WASHINGTON -- According to the United States government, 61 percent of Americans are fat because of poor diets. That number is up from 55 percent from 1988 to 1994 and from 46 percent from 1976 to 1980.
According to a report by Scripps Howard News Service, former Surgeon General David Satcher said obesity translates into 300,000 premature deaths each year, and $117 billion in fat-related health bills from eating-related diseases such as adult-onset diabetes, and cholesterol-clogged arteries. And as obesity-related medical costs rise, someone will have to pay for it.
John Banzhaf, a George Washington University Law School professor who started the crusade against smoking in 1967, and developed the legal theories that led to the $260 billion tobacco settlement, said a lawsuit against the food industry on fatty food issues can't be ruled out.
If it can be proven that the food industry deceived Americans into believing fat foods are healthy for them, a fat fine may be one penalty; a fat tax, another.
"It's an idea that has some promise," he said. "It's quite possible it could happen."
Similar suits have been filed against food companies, i.e., the $10 million suit McDonald's recently lost for failing to disclose its french fries used beef flavoring. Florida's Department of Citrus and consumer groups are suing Procter & Gamble because they say Sunny Delight is marketed deceptively as orange juice when it contains only 5 percent juice. Procter & Gamble said the drink's ingredients are clearly and prominently labeled, and thus not deceptive.
The Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization launched by the restaurant industry, is fighting back with an advertising campaign ridiculing the idea of a "fat tax" on consumer choices.
"We stand up for common sense and personal choice," the group said. "The growing fraternity of 'food cops,' health-care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats and violent radicals who think they can decide better than you 'what's best for you' are not just attacking restaurants -- they're attacking liberty."
Timothy Willard, a spokesman for the food industry, said there's no scientific reason to blame any particular foods for obesity because poor diets are to blame.
Willard questioned whether a fat tax would fall on natural substances that are 100 percent fat, yet perceived as healthy, like olive oil. If processed foods were targeted, he asked who would judge which fatty foods are OK, and which should be taxed? Would there be one level of payment for eating at a fast-food store's salad bar, another level if fatty salad dressing is dribbled on the salad, and another level if a hamburger is ordered on the side?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an anti-junk food group in Washington, maintains that the industry is trying to cloud the issue.
CSPI researcher Margo Wooten said soft-drink sales are taxed in more than a dozen states, and a junk food tax could force a wholesome change in eating habits, especially among youths.
Wooten said that food industry campaigns raising the horrors of a fat tax are ridiculous, but reflect nervousness at polls showing 85 percent of Americans want to eat better.
"I think they're more defensive than they were two years ago," she said. "Obesity rates are going through the roof, and they're worried they are going to be blamed for that -- as they should be, because their marketing practices contribute to it."