Stop frivolous obesity lawsuits before they start

July 22, 2003

Researchers say that obesity in America is approaching epidemic proportions, and lawyers say it's the restaurant industry's fault. So serious are they about making whipping boys of the nation's largest foodservice chains that a large-scale strategy meeting was held in Boston in June. The pouty party included presentations by the food police from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Anthony Robbins, a professor of community health at the Tufts University School of Medicine. In his presentation, Robbins called the foodservice industry "a target of opportunity."

Press reports said many attendees believe the logic of John Banzaf III, the famed (or infamous, depending on your view) law professor from George Washington University who represented plaintiffs in lawsuits against U.S. tobacco companies.

Banzaf espouses the

Steve Coomes, Editor

view that Americans have become obese from eating fast food and are addicted to it. He has stated publicly that he's taking aim at six large foodservice companies: Pizza Hut; McDonald's; Burger King; Wendy's; KFC; and Taco Bell. To no one's surprise, these companies have deep pockets, just like R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson. But I digress.

Hoping to ensure such ridiculous lawsuits never make it on a court docket, Florida Republican Rep. Ric Keller has introduced the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (H.R. 339), which currently is on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Personal responsibility

As ridiculous as Banzaf's claims are, it's likely his and others' will be heard in court. Last year another lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, attempted to sue McDonald's

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in an obesity-related case in Brooklyn, saying the burger giant's advertising was misleading. The judge on the case dismissed the suit in January, however, for lack of evidence. Published reports say it's likely to be refiled with a new twist.

In the months since, the lipo-lawyers have turned to children to serve as their portly plaintiffs in obesity suits. Their aim is to prove fast food made these darlings doughy by showing how the growth in numbers of obese and diabetic kids in the U.S. is a result of their over-consumption of burgers, pizza and tacos.

Interestingly, they may have a point. An unbalanced diet of any type could have negative results.

But whose fault is that? McDonald's, for keeping the doors open seven days a week and selling affordable, easy-to-purchase food?


At 38, I'm like a lot of folks who grew up thinking visits to Pizza Hut and Burger King were special occasions, not sustenance stops. My mother was a good cook, but not always a willing one. She had four children, a more-than-full-time job outside of the home, and she didn't get any help from my father in the kitchen. Cooking wasn't a hobby for her.

Still, that didn't drive her to drive us to the drive-thru every night of the week, either. She cooked because she believed home-cooked food was best for her family (even though much of it was fatty and starchy). She and the majority of mothers like her -- even those with enough money to buy restaurant food -- simply chose to do otherwise.

Many parents today, however, are making a different choice. Restaurant sales increases prove they're choosing to eat out more often (though research shows that 60 percent of all meals are still consumed at home). For whatever reasons, they're choosing the drive-thru window or pizza delivery or the takeout counter as their food funnel.

Be that good or bad, they're no more forced to patronize those outlets than they are to buy sugared-up Mountain Dew and Pop-Tarts from a grocery store. Convenience and preference, not addiction, lead these people to pull those foods off the shelves the same way they lead them to patronize certain restaurants.

Some, like Margo Wootan, a nutritionist at CSPI, say American parents don't have a choice, that they are at the mercy of their children when it comes to meal decisions. She also believes these all-powerful children are at the mercy of the marketing machines, known as fast-food companies, to buy from their outlets. In a July 10 New York Times article, Wootan said, "Their marketing aimed at kids is terrible. And it has increased. They bypass the parents and go directly to kids. They make parents have to say no all the time."

Poor parents. Can't take the pressure of saying no to their kids about a Happy Meal.

In the same NYT article, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University said that companies like Kraft should address the nation's obesity problem by not "making junk food. ... I want people eating real foods, produced by local farmers."

Think she means foods like beef, pork, flour, cheese and tomato sauce?

Prepare for battle

I'm sure a hundred other logical arguments against such obesity lawsuits could be added to mine, but the fact is, as long as Americans use the courts to foist the blame for their lowly conditions on others, such suits won't go away.

My advice to pizza operators, therefore, is to become proactive by unifying under a collective banner that will build and fund a legal defense strategy. (The National Council of Chain Restaurants said it supports H.R. 339, while the National Restaurant Association's president calls it "a step in the right direction.")

Regardless of whether you're an independent or chain operator, you will ultimately be affected if Pizza Hut and other foodservice operations are sued and lose. In addition to filling their coffers with punitive damage dollars, lawyers who will try these cases want to give government further control of how foods are prepared, regulated and represented -- regardless of whether they need to be. (Just like their plaintiffs, they want to put the burden of everyone's health off on someone else. That way no one has to feel guilty for their bad decisions, right?)

Meantime, read up, stay informed and get involved by telling your state and national govenment representatives to support legislation barring frivolous lawsuits. The way you run your businesses in the future may depend on it.

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