Lawsuits can fight fat
By John F. Banzhaf III
It took lawyers and litigation to start the civil rights,
environmental protection, disability rights and anti-smoking
movements. Legislators wouldn't act until the lawsuits caused change
and produced publicity that led to laws and other reforms. For
example, lawsuits aimed at smoking did what Congress refused to do:
slashed smoking rates and returned hundreds of billions of dollars to
Five fat lawsuits have already been successful and, as USA TODAY
reported, they were a major factor in pressuring fast-food and other
food companies to provide more nutritional information and more
healthful alternatives, and to take other steps to reduce obesity.
A court of impartial federal judges has now unanimously held that the
same legal rules that apply to hundreds of products, from cigarettes
to automobiles, should apply to fast food, and that those who sell it
should be liable for their fair share of the costs if they
misrepresent or fail to disclose risks that aren't common knowledge.
USA TODAY opposes the suits, arguing for public education and
personal responsibility. But expensive taxpayer-funded government
educational campaigns weren't very effective in reducing smoking,
race discrimination, sexual harassment or other behaviors, while
lawsuits were. Face it, personal responsibility by itself simply
hasn't worked for obesity any better than it did for smoking and the
others, and it isn't likely to.
Juries continue to rule that, while smokers must bear much of the
responsibility for their own health, Big Tobacco must share some
responsibility if its misconduct contributed to it. Surveys suggest
that juries will apply the same principle in obesity cases,
especially where young children are the innocent victims. After all,
we don't hold sick children liable for the faults of their parents.
Moreover, if fast-food companies are not held liable, or otherwise
forced to change, the $117 billion-a-year cost of obesity will
continue to be paid largely and unfairly by the non-obese in the
form of higher taxes and bloated health insurance premiums.
That's why, until lawmakers legislate against obesity, lawyers will
continue to litigate against it and probably continue to win.
John F. Banzhaf III is a professor of public interest law at George
Washington University Law School and an adviser to the plaintiffs in
the McDonald's lawsuit.