Let Them Eat Cake

By Phyllis Griffin Epps

In the wake of reports of the high prevalence of obesity and obesity-related illnesses among Americans, class action lawsuits have been filed against manufacturers of what is commonly known as “fast food”. http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/fatsuit020725.html. Filed on behalf of consumers, the lawsuit contends that fast food companies are responsible for the obesity of their patrons.

The argument goes like this: if we knew how truly unhealthy fast food is, we would avoid such food and, by extension, obesity. The theory implies that one cannot have known of the risk to one’s health.  In the name of proprietary secrets, critics complain, fast food companies deliberately conceal ingredients or nutritional information in such a way as to deprive the customer from making an informed dietary decision.  The cases suggest that this misrepresentation of nutritional value is directly related to obesity in America.

One may compare the theories beneath suits against fast food restaurants and successful lawsuits against the manufacturers of tobacco products.  Professor John Banzhaf III of George Washington University was a prominent figure in the cases that ended with “Big Tobacco” paying millions in damages to states as reparations for the high costs of treating persons for illnesses related to tobacco consumption. http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=302005. The clandestine addition of ingredients designed to encourage addiction to cigarettes were an issue in popular opinion, if not the litigation, regarding the justice in punishing tobacco manufacturers for the industry’s role in causing the health problems associated with tobacco consumption.

The deception-argument also brings to mind a recent case in which American Hindus sued McDonald’s restaurants for the failure to disclose that the restaurant added beef extract to its French fries.  The restaurant stated that the fries were “vegetarian,” in that they were potatoes  cooked in vegetable oil.  The complainants argued they would not have consumed the fries if they had known that the oil in which the fries were cooked contained beef tallow.  In settling the case, the restaurant paid $12 million in damages and issued a public apology for the misrepresentation. http://www.mcdonalds.com/countries/usa/whatsnew/pressrelease/2002/06012002/index.html.

But is the legal system an effective means toward reducing obesity?  Is litigation the best way to educate the public about the dangers of obesity or, more specifically, the dangers of a double King McBurger?  Litigation would serve the objective of having fast food companies bear some the costs associated with the dietary habits of patrons.  Supporters of the litigation might suggest that a lawsuit would be more effective than a public relations campaign against the evils of fast food because a successful suit would generate funds (less attorneys’ fees, of course) for the amelioration of mass obesity and related illnesses. Others have advocated the imposition of a tax on unhealthy foods to offset the high costs of treating obesity-related illnesses, whether by funding education programs or actual healthcare.  Such a tax would certainly affect consumers of the products more than non-consumers.

A large cheeseburger at the more prominent fast food restaurants can exceed 770 calories and 45 grams of fat; a large serving of fries may have as many as 540 calories and 25 grams of fat. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/flash/health/caloriecounter/calories_static.html#mcdonalds. Advertising and an ever-dropping price per volume may well be a significant influence on the tendency among children and adults to consume ever-growing amounts of each. Schlosser, Eric. FAST FOOD NATION: THE DARK SIDE OF THE AMERICAN MEAL (2001). The consumption of such food defies all commonly held knowledge about the importance of healthy eating.  Holding fast food restaurants responsible for the health of its consumers is nevertheless a difficult argument.  What influence do fast food restaurants have over the physical activity of customers?  Are fast food restaurants to be held accountable for other variables in obesity, such as meals taken elsewhere or the couch-potato culture so familiar to Americans?

It is said that Americans in particular view obesity as a failure of the will of the individual.  If that view is not the whole truth (and it isn’t), then there are so many variables that contribute to obesity that it will be difficult to prove how “Big Food” alone should assume the resulting costs.  Maybe the manufacturers of video games will be next.  Perhaps the makers of cream-filled yellow snack cakes should be afraid…very afraid.

Warning: Consumption of that triple bacon cheeseburger may be hazardous to your health.  Duh.

08/30/02