NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Big Food": Scapegoat for Obesity?

June 13, 2002

Will it come down to this: makers of high-fat or high-sodium foods being held legally responsible for obesity in America -- much as tobacco companies were pilloried for smoking-related health problems? Food companies are preparing for just such a battle.

  • In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report saying that obesity rates had reached epidemic proportions and called for "a national plan of action."
  • It has been estimated that some 300,000 Americans died of obesity-related causes in 2000 -- deaths which are called preventable -- resulting in $117 billion in health care costs.
  • Already, a handful of class-action lawsuits have accused food companies large and small of deceptive marketing -- cases which some experts see as the forerunners of suits against companies for simply selling fattening foods.
  • A tobacco critic is working with students at Northeastern University to develop strategies which could be used to bring obesity-related claims against food-makers.

But legal observers note that anti-food activists may be biting off more than they can chew. First, food is not addictive in the way tobacco was. Also, metabolism rates vary among individuals and physical activity -- including a walk after dinner -- can do wonders for waistlines.

Then there is the issue of personal responsibility, which seemed to carry weight with some juries in tobacco cases.

Source: Shelly Branch, "Is Food the Next Tobacco?" Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2002.

 

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