NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Gluttonous Attorneys Ready to Feed on Fast Food "Addiction"

March 12, 2003

Is "hamburger addiction" like "heroin addiction?" Will fast-food chains become the next tobacco industry, forced to charge patrons extra to eat burgers, as smokers now pay premium prices to buy cigarettes?

It is true that people can "crave" pizza as they might a cigarette, that they feel weak and shaky when calories (or heroin) "wear off" and that they sometimes consume fries (or cocaine) compulsively. But these facile comparisons tell us little about the nature of overeating, says psychiatrist Sally Satel. Instead, they show how the term "addiction" can be stretched until it becomes meaningless.

Virtually every pleasure we encounter -- listening to beautiful music, sex, even exercise -- is associated with surges of dopamine similar to those during a high-fat meal. But we call these pleasures, not addictions.

  • Scientists cannot look at dopamine levels or brain scans and tell the difference.
  • When cocaine addicts, for example, are shown drug paraphernalia (a crack pipe or lines of white powder on a mirror), they experience craving, and their pleasure centers (unsurprisingly) light up on positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which capture images of brain activity.
  • Those images, however, tell us little about whether the brain's owner is compelled to act on his desire.

The word "addiction" is perilously close to losing any meaning. If lawyers can turn fast food into an addiction and pin liability on restaurants, it won't be long before adulterers sue Sports Illustrated, claiming its swimsuit issue led them astray.

Source: Sally Satel, "Fast food 'addiction' feeds only lawyers," USA Today, March 12, 2003.

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