NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Would You Like to Supersize that Tort Award?

February 19, 2003

With more than 60 percent of Americans overweight, U.S. food companies -- whose yearly revenues total $900 billion -- are facing the likely return of Pelman vs. McDonald's. In that case, two overweight teenagers sued the fast-food giant for making them fat.

If the amended suit is allowed to proceed, it could trigger countless copycat cases.

  • The plaintiff's attorney wants to make it a class action case, so potentially millions of overweight youngsters could join it.
  • Even if it fails again, a loose alliance of lawyers, many experienced in litigation against tobacco companies, is already working on other strategies.
  • Litigation could spread from fast food to confectionery makers and soft drinks companies, and then to other parts of the industry.

Yet lawyers could still find it difficult to win cases against the food industry.

  • Food, unlike tobacco, is essential to life, safe in moderation and not generally considered addictive.
  • Consumers are free to eat what they choose and are aware that some foods are less healthy than others.
  • Lawyers and anti-obesity campaigners are unlikely to succeed in turning highly popular food and beverage companies into pariahs, as the anti-smoking lobby did with cigarette companies.

Gene Grabowski of Grocery Manufacturers of America, the food industry lobby group, calls the analogy between food and tobacco "specious". "To sue food manufacturers because what we make is high in calories or fat is absolutely wrong-headed," he says.

Source: Neil Buckley, "Unhealthy food is everywhere, 24 hours a day, and inexpensive," Financial Times, February 18, 2003.


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