Boston, June 20 (Reuters): Some of the people who took Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man to court will meet this weekend to discuss doing the same to the likes of Ronald McDonald and other well-known faces of the food industry.
Law professor Richard Daynard of Boston’s Northeastern University and Washington lawyer John Banzhaf are among the anti-tobacco crusaders due to attend a conference in Boston that will examine legal approaches to fight obesity.
Their argument' Just like cigarette makers hooked smokers with nicotine and went after teens with hip advertising, food companies have addicted millions of Americans on cheap, high-calorie products — causing an obesity epidemic that sucks more than $90 billion from the nation’s health care system each year.
The sort of legal approach they envision would go far beyond a few consumers accusing McDonald’s of making them fat, or last month’s widely-publicised but short-lived lawsuit against Kraft Food Inc. that sought a ban on Oreo cookies because of purported health risks.
But the possibility of a new wave of tobacco-style litigation has provoked outrage in the food industry, triggered a noisy debate over personal responsibility.
A US House of Representatives panel heard emotional testimony yesterday about a proposed law that would protect restaurants against lawsuits from people who blame fast-food marketing for their obesity.
Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a Washington lobby group that represents hundreds of food makers, said the real purpose of the Boston meeting was to come up with new ways for lawyers to line their pockets.
“They’re going to sit down and talk about who should pay for the Learjets they used to fly into Boston,” she said. “A lawsuit isn’t going to help anybody lose one single pound or improve any person’s health.”
Ben Kelley is among those organising this weekend’s conference, where participants will be asked to sign an affidavit vowing to keep secret potential legal strategies. Kelley, a visiting professor at Tufts University and head of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, said that with childhood obesity rates skyrocketing, the meeting will look at the ways food companies promote their products to children.
“It is necessary to understand how the companies that make high-density, low-cost food market it very aggressively to schools and kids,” he said. “We need to know what they have known about the impact of those strategies on overeating.”
Northeastern’s Daynard said there may be appropriate grounds for a lawsuit if it can be shown that fast food outlets knew that their marketing was contributing to overeating and either did nothing or exploited that knowledge for profit.
“The food companies are really quite deceptive in the kinds of information they give about their products so that you have the McDonald’s — I used to take my kids there and I did not want red meat so I would get the chicken or the fish and it turns out both are higher in calories and fat than the Big Mac,” Daynard said.
Washington-based attorney John Coale, one of the chief architects of the tobacco master settlement who has also taken on gun makers on behalf of several cities, said he would not attend the Boston meeting because of a prior engagement but supports its aims.
“It’s not going to work if you take obese people and blame McDonald’s for everything,” he said. “But the issue that does have legs is kids.”
Coale said he has “no doubt” that food companies have a strategy to hook children on fatty foods, but is unsure whether the issue is best decided by lawmakers or by courts.
“You’ve got clowns, you’ve got happy meals — and it’s OK in moderation but it’s gotten to the point where it’s overkill,” he said. “Still, whether it rises to the level of a good lawsuit remains to be seen.”