London, Sept. 30: Food companies were warned today that they face multi-billion pound lawsuits similar to those that brought the tobacco industry to its knees.
Richard Daynard, who led several tobacco actions and is a professor of law at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, said that the food industry’s marketing tactics directly paralleled those that forced the tobacco industry to settle a £6 billion lawsuit out of court.
He added that the food firms could soon be sued over accusations that their fatty and sugary products are helping to cause obesity in Britons, with children being especially vulnerable.
Writing in Consumer Policy Review, Prof Daynard pointed out that it was not the harmful effects of tobacco that had forced Philip Morris, the largest tobacco company, to concede defeat.
Instead it was the way that tobacco companies used “sophisticated devices to persuade” children and teenagers to take up smoking and promoted “denial and disinformation” about the health effects of tobacco.
He said the huge advertising spending of food companies, much of it aimed at children, could be regarded as interfering directly with the ability of consumers to exercise a free and informed choice about the food they eat.
Blaming the heavy product promotion and marketing tactics of food companies for the obesity epidemic that has seen the number of seriously overweight children increase almost fourfold in 25 years, Daynard said that the food companies were facing a very similar situation to what the tobacco industry faced a decade ago.
Lawsuits brought by a New York lawyer against McDonald’s last year were originally ridiculed but have since captured the public’s imagination.
“Tobacco litigation also began small and scorned. There are relevant similarities between the behaviour of cigarette manufacturers and that of some food companies,” Prof Daynard said.
“The effects of a changing public consciousness about obesity on legislation and regulation have just begun to be felt,” he said.
“And the amenability of the legal system to a variety of possible litigation strategies has barely been tested. We have a lot of work to do.”
He cited the example of the McDonald’s advertising budget, which in 1999 was £392 million, while a mere £1.9 million was spent promoting the eating of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Daynard said that the dishonest marketing of some products as “health-enhancing” could be equated to claims by the tobacco industry that low tar and light cigarettes were less harmful.
What’s more, with some studies now suggesting that foods with added sugars and fat could be addictive, the food industry could be accused of selling products it knew to be harmful.
A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation said: “Our members take a very responsible attitude to promoting a healthy lifestyle and have been doing so for a long time.”