News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Lawyers poised to sue US junk food manufacturers

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 15 June 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1414
  1. Fred Charatan
  1. Florida

    The first lawyer to sue the tobacco industry is predicting a series of similar suits against the fast food industry for its role in the obesity epidemic.

    Professor John Banzhaf of George Washington University, Washington, DC, said that successful lawsuits mounted against tobacco companies have set a precedent for suing the fast food chains and snack food companies for their part in the increasing obesity epidemic in the United States.

    “As we're getting more and more figures saying just how dangerous obesity is, people are wondering if tactics used against the tobacco industry very successfully could be used against the problem of obesity,” said Professor Banzhaf, founder and director of the US antitobacco campaign group Action on Smoking and Health.

    He recently helped win a case against the fast food chain McDonald's for falsely claiming that its French fries contained no animal fat. In fact, the frying oil contained beef tallow. The company paid out millions in damages to vegetarians and devout Hindus, who had believed its assurances.

    Professor Banzhaf predicts that many obesity related suits will be filed in the near future. “Smoking in the 1970s was seen as an individual problem,” he said. “All that changed when people saw the impact on non-smokers of second-hand smoke.”

    His comments come in the wake of increasing anxiety about obesity in the United States. Last December US surgeon general David Satcher said that overweight and obesity could soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking. Around 300 000 deaths a year are associated with obesity and overweight in the United States, compared with more than 400 000 deaths a year associated with cigarette smoking.

    In 1999 an estimated 61% of US adults were overweight, along with 13% of children and adolescents. In 2000 the economic cost of obesity in the United States was put at $117bn (£80bn; €124bn).

    In March this year Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, (who is not related to the family which owns the food company Nestlé), published a book in which she claimed that the food industry was responsible for the fattening of America.

    In the book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, she said: “Food companies will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health. In this regard, food companies hardly differ from cigarette companies.”

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