Fat Litigation


(This column was first published in the February 17, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


One of my Alabama brother-in-laws recently asked me what my attitude was about the lawsuit against McDonald's on behalf of fat people. (J. T. is one of the finest people I know but we reside at opposite ends of the political spectrum. His inquiry represented a challenge to my liberal beliefs.) "What next?" expressed his succinct view of the case.


My response was that I hadn't considered the matter, but that I was deeply concerned about the terrible effect the fast food industry is having on cattle ranchers and potato farmers -- well documented in Eric Schlosser's excellent book, Fast Food Nation. At that point we dropped the discussion.


My brother-in-law's position seemed to be carried as reported in this newspaper on February 1: "There's been no shortage of snickering since a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by McDonald's patrons seeking damages because Big Macs made their kids fat. There seems to be a consensus that intelligent life understands that burgers, fries and shakes are fattening."


Not included in that article and most others I have seen, however, is the fact that, at the same time he threw out the current suit, the judge encouraged the plaintiffs' attorney Sam Hirsch to refile on at least one count. And, as made very clear in Roger Parloff's article, "Is Fat the Next Tobacco? For Big Food, the Supersizing of America is Becoming a Big Headache" in the January 21 Fortune, more careful analysis of this case may well support the plaintiffs.


And here is where the lawsuit intersects this natural history column. It has important human physiological implications.


Consider some of the facts Parloff lists:


* "Rates of overweight among small children -- to whom junk-food companies aggressively market their products -- have doubled since 1980."


* "In 1999 physicians began reporting an alarming rise in children of obesity-linked type 2 diabetes. Once an obese youngster develops diabetes, he or she will never get rid of it." And Parloff adds: "That's a lot more irreversible than a smoking addiction."


* "Public health costs attributable to overweight and obesity now come to about $117 billion a year -- fast approaching the $140 billion stemming from smoking."


As expected, McDonald's and its competitors in the fast food industry -- Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC and Wendy's among others -- have fought back, in court and in the public arena: in some cases with full page newspaper ads. But, says Northeastern University law professor Richard Daynard, their argument takes the form of: "If you're stupid enough to use our products, you deserve to get the diseases our products cause." While that argument may support them in court, says Daynard, "it's very good for public health."


I have a different problem with that argument. Surely it should not apply to the small children who are bombarded by advertising for fast foods by this industry. Perhaps the best evidence for this is to be witnessed on Saturday morning television. Surf the channels next Saturday between 8:00 a.m. and noon and you will be convinced.


Yes, you can say, parents have a role to play here. Indeed they do, but today's parents have a tough time fighting back against the powerful and repeated body blows of expensively produced advertisements. Surely, even as adults, we can recall the pressures we exerted on our own parents even before these inducements.


I salute Fortune not only for this article but for the following essay by Timothy K. Smith, which offers a successful alternative for school cafeterias. Every educator should read Smith's article.


Now if I could only break my own fast food addiction.-- Gerry Rising