OPINION: Low-fat pizza's nice, but will it keep the lawyers away?

Nov. 4, 2003

Low-fat pizza.

Pizza Hut's got it, and rumor has it that versions made by Domino's Pizza and Papa John's aren't far behind.

Nice work, gang. It's a well-intentioned and arguably overdue move, and I sincerely hope the calorie-conscious who say they want such things will buy it.

Maybe it'll even keep the lawyers and the food police at bay for a time.

But likely not. So easily appeasing the gang of shysters threatening to sue the foodservice industry can't be that easy.

Yes, my words toward the American trial bar are as bitter as they sound. And perhaps they shouldn't be seeing as I'm not the one facing potential lawsuits. But any sensible human being would struggle not to get steamed over what's about to take place in our court system.

As you may have read in our feature story "The Weight Debate," people like John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, who is commonly referred to as the man who took on Big Tobacco, want a piece of your pie—and they'll work to take it by hook or crook.

But for the sake of public appearances, the cameras and the media, Banzhaf and his buddies

Steve Coomes, Editor

will tell you they're suing your companies for the public good, not for personal greed. They want to stamp out obesity, they claim, and their walk through the court system toward a nation of willowy waistlines begins at your doorstep. Yes, they're coming to place a carryout order: not for pizza, but for cash. It's not a hold-up (well, not in the classic sense, anyway), but it is the latest effort of many lawyers to uphold all that the American legal system isn't suppose to be, namely a means of abusing the free enterprise system.

More details ...

Because the human attention span lasts only so long, I try to keep articles like "The Weight Debate" to about 1,500 words. That means a whole lot of information never makes it into the final draft of an article. Unfortunately, some of the best quotes I got during the MUFSO debate never made it in—hence my desire to furnish them here.

You see, it's my every intention to make clear that none of our readers misunderstands what a thorn in the side of the foodservice industry John Banzhaf aspires to be. This is not a man of altruistic motives, a person so fearful of a fatty future for America's children that he's motivated to use the legal system to get Pizza Hut et al. to make skinny slices. This is a man motivated by impudence and ignorance.

Let's begin with his impudence. Banzhaf made clear during the debate that he and other lawyers are "going to find a judge who will let these suits go forward. And somewhere we'll find a jury that's going to rule in our favor."

In other words, regardless of whether his lawsuits are truthful, whether his plaintiffs actually became fat via quick-service food consumption, and whether any judges believe his complaints are worth hearing, he'll keep shopping until he finds a sympathetic—which would truly be pathetic—audience.

Truth doesn't matter to John Banzhaff, only camera time, newspaper ink and his 40 percent settlement contingency. Perhaps Rick Berman, MUFSO debate opponent and president of the Center for Consumer Freedom, summed it up best when he said, "It's John's strategy that if you go out and throw enough of this crap against the wall, it'll stick someplace."

Which leads me to Banzhaf's ignorance, particularly regarding his intepretation of the recent dismissal of an obesity lawsuit against McDonald's Corp. I'm no legal expert, but the judge's ruling was clear to me, as it apparently was to Berman, who, like Banzhaf is also an attorney: These plaintiffs have no case. (To read the judge's opinion, click here.)

Banzhaf, however, believes the ruling spelled out "at least three bases upon which a restaurant could be held liable." The three he mentioned include a lack of nutritional information made available to customers, false advertising and the supposed addictive nature of fast food. The judge's answers to all three are simple:

1. There is no law stating restaurant companies must label their foods in the explicit manner sought by Banzhaf and Kelly, so those businesses can't be held liable.

2. In the McDonald's case, the plaintiffs' attorney tried to say McDonald's ads were deceptive. A tagline in one TV ad urged viewers to eat McDonald's "every day," which the plaintiffs' attorney said led viewers to infer McDonald's food was healthy. Not only did the judge not agree with the attorney, he pointed out that the plaintiffs weren't even born yet when the ads ran!

3. The plaintiffs' attempt to prove the addictive nature of fast food was largely absent from the case-mostly because no such evidence exists, and partly because Banzhaf is playing fast and loose with the facts of the case. A good example of this is his mention of a report done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which claims quick-service restaurants are largely responsible for the nation's obesity epidemic. Banzhaf called it "the most exhaustive careful and impartial study I've seen on the topic."

I urge you to read it for yourselves because I'll bet that, like me, you'll find it neither exhaustive nor impartial, but pitifully hypothetical, unfounded and baseless. Such papers get Fs in college classrooms.

And yet, this is the research Banzhaf is going to court with.

Oh, and since I'm on a bit of a rhyming jag here with my anti-Banzhaf adjectives, I'll add that he's motivated by decadence, too. What other word could I use to describe (well, repugnant works pretty well) his and other lawyers' plan to use children as the porky plaintiffs in upcoming cases?

I suppose he believes judges and juries will blame adults for making their own dietary decisions and thus they can't be sold as victims of quick-service food companies. But kids, on the other hand, they're under Ronald McDonald's spell. Millions of quick-service food images on TV and elsewhere have rewired their brains to the point they're unable to eat anything else and their parents have no choice but to meet their demands. Never mind they can't drive themselves to McDonald's or any other quick-service restaurant. (And we all know that if they had to walk there, they likely wouldn't, right?)

For this strategy, Mr. Banzhaf, I have only one answer from the Book of Matthew, 18:6, in which Christ said, "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

You see Mr. Banzhaf, like these juries you believe will be sympathetic to children, it's a big deal to Jesus when someone convinces a child to sin.

And that's exactly what you'll be doing if you con them to help you in a fraudulent lawsuit. Were I you, I'd reconsider that strategy.

Topics: Commentary , Pizza Hut

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