Fed Up

The fast food industry isn't responsible for obesity, but it doesn't deserve blanket immunity.

Mon Mar. 15, 2004 4:00 AM EST

America is getting fatter; this we know. Study after study confirms what our eyes have seen: an epidemic of obesity that threatens, before long, to take more lives than smoking.

Big deal, right? If people want to eat, let 'em eat. (And anyway, hadn't we moved on from the rights and wrongs of fat to fat peoples' rights?) Not quite. Obesity is becoming a gargantuan public health problem. A CDC study says nearly 130 million Americans are overweight or obese, costing the nation $117 billion in medical and other expenses in 2000.

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What's more, overweight Americans are waking up to the possibility that not they, but the malign purveyors of fatty foods are responsible for their supersized health problems. (Or at least that they can claim as much in a law court.) And they've got Big Fast Food running in fear of lawsuits, against the background din of media hysteria and insensitive, punning headlines ("Feeding frenzy," "fat cats," "big problems," "supersized health problems" -- oh, wait).

In other words, we have here a classic American debate -- pitting indivdualists against paternalists, victims against perpetrators, corporations against consumers, and fat cat trial lawyers against fat cat execs. It was only a matter of time before Congress stepped in.

The House last week determined that Americans need to accept that it's not the fast food industry's fault that Americans are overweight. A piece of legislation called the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, to bar people from suing restaurants on the grounds that their food makes customers fat, passed comfortably on Wednesday.

The Republican-written -- and White House-approved -- measure, mischievously dubbed the "Cheeseburger Bill," was passed 276 to 139, its object being to curb the threat of obesity claims against fast-food franchises that provide millions of jobs (and millions of dollars of political contributions) along with their burgers and fries. The legislation would bar new cases and dismiss pending federal and state suits, but it would not prevent suits brought because of a restaurant's negligence, false advertising, mislabeling or tainted food.

Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), chairman of the Judiciary Committee said: "This bill says, 'Don't run off [!] and file a lawsuit if you are fat.' It says, 'Look in the mirror because you're the one to blame.'"

The bill may also have been provoked by cases like one last year involving a handful of teenagers in New York who blamed McDonald’s for causing them obesity and health problems. The judge threw out the case, saying: "If a person knows, or should know, that eating copious orders of super-sized McDonald's products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain ... it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses."

Democrats argue that this is just another in a long line of Republican-led efforts to provide legal immunity to a specific industry, protecting them not just from "frivolous" lawsuits, but from the more serious kind, too. Last week, a measure to provide immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers was defeated. Last year, a the energy bill stalled because Republicans wanted to grant immunity to producers of MTBE, a gasoline additive blamed for water pollution. The Senate seems to be of the same mind as Democrats, and is thought unlikely to pass the Cheeseburger Bill.

A Gallup Poll in 2003 found that 89 percent of Americans don’t blame the fast-food industry for obesity. Why is there a need for a bill?

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) says:

"With all the challenges facing this country and with the limited schedule set by the Republicans this year, is this the best bill to consider. Under the Republican leadership, this House has become a place where trivial issues are debated passionately and serious ones not at all."

The New York Times suggests that this bill is denying Americans a basic right to use the legal system in the way as intended:

"Call it legis-lite: the Republican leaders of Congress have been running one of the least demanding workloads in decades, politicking most of the year while scheduling only 94 days in session, 40 fewer than four years ago. Yet the House still invested a day's debate in passing what is known as the cheeseburger bill — a supersize sop to the fast-food industry. It's a gift that Republicans love doling out to their friends in big business, namely, immunity from being sued. Proponents righteously heaped blame on individual overeaters in the debate, while once again indulging the G.O.P.'s obsession for curtailing Americans' basic right to go to court. The House performance was an exercise in special-interest pandering, not calorie counting.

Arguably, while lawsuits against the fast-food industry haven't had a great success rate, they've done some good by scaring the the fast food industry into cleaning up it’s act, somewhat. McDonald's recently announced that it would stop "supersizing" meals, and has been offering salads and other alternatives, including "all-white-meat" McNuggets. It has also made its fries healthier. Kraft, the biggest food producer in the U.S, said it would reduce the sizes of its portions.

John Banzhaf, George Washington University law professor and one of the most outspoken advocates for accountability in the food industry, warned that lifting the threat could have a disastrous effect. He told the the Wall Street Journal: "Obesity looks like it is going to be our number one and most expensive health problem. Rather than doing something about the problem, Congress is debating cutting off our most effective weapon against it."

Obesity is a very serious problem, says the New York Times, in need of a serious public health response.

The public health threat posed by obesity is a far more serious national problem than any imagined epidemic of fast-food "frivolous lawsuits." But then, with the House in legis-lite mode, it must be hard to find the time to grapple with real issues."

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