Big-tobacco foe: fast food nearly as addictive as drugs; lawyer serves notice he’ll sue to force dietary warnings – NRN National Report

Big-tobacco foe: fast food nearly as addictive as drugs; lawyer serves notice he’ll sue to force dietary warnings – NRN National Report – John Banzhaf

Milford Prewitt

WASHINGTON — A prominent anti-tobacco trial lawyer who is a successful litigant against McDonald’s — now charging that fast food is nearly as addictive as heroin — is threatening class-action lawsuits against major chains unless they post warnings about the health consequences of habitual consumption.

“For a large number of people, a steady diet of fast food is almost as harmful and as difficult to resist as heroin is to an addict or nicotine is to a habitual cigarette smoker,” attorney and law professor John Banzhaf claimed.

Banzhaf, best known for spearheading billion-dollar class-action victories over the tobacco industry and widely credited for the 1971 extinction of cigarette commercials from television, handed his warning to National Restaurant Association president Stephen C. Anderson in a letter during a debate between the two men at a national conference on obesity.

The letter, Banzhaf explained, had the weight of an official legal document that “served notice” on the restaurant industry that it has a social responsibility to inform customers of the potential dangers of fast food.

“All industries are required to keep up with safety and scientific research affecting their businesses and products,” he said. “If you manufacture boilers, you’d keep up with all the advancements to make a safer boiler. By giving them this letter, I’m sending out a clear message that they are on notice.”

Anderson insisted that the letter had no legal weight. He noted it was written on Banzhaf’s letterhead and had no imprimatur from a court. Anderson also said NRA lawyers are confident the warning is not legally relevant.

“A heavy fast-food diet over time blocks the normal mechanism in the brain that produces hormones that tell us to stop eating when we are full,” asserted Banzhaf, who teaches law at the George Washington University Law School.

Banzhaf’s letter to Anderson, presented during the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, attributed his scientific understanding of food addiction to a recent article in New Scientist magazine, a London-based publication that reported findings about certain similarities in brain functioning between drug abusers and heavy users of fast food.

The article suggested in part that some people might actually experience “withdrawal symptoms” when forced to stop eating fast food over a period of time.

Sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and held at the National Press Club, the standing-room-only policy conference was attended by hundreds of dietitians and policy makers, including the Bush administration’s top health officials — Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark B. McClellan.

Thompson was quoted during the conference as saying that lawsuits against restaurant chains and legislative mandates to promote nutrition would be less effective than companies voluntary efforts, which the administration intended to encourage.

Banzhaf later remarked that he didn’t know if his letter strategy would work, “but if this comes to court three months, six months, nine months, however long it may take, they won’t be able to say they didn’t know” about the reported addiction findings.

Anderson depicted Banzhaf’s actions at the conference as a stunt that fizzled.

Anderson, confident that he won the debate, ridiculed the comparison of heroin addiction to fast-food cravings that lead to obesity as “ridiculous” and “patently absurd.”

“What he really did is draw an inaccurate conclusion and misinterpreted data by stretching the definition of the word addiction,” Anderson argued, “so that under his view, looking at the sunset, listening to classical music or running in a 10K race could all be addictions.”

“He deliberately blurred the definition between pleasure and addiction.”

Anderson reiterated an observation he frequently made, that lawsuits filed in attempts to improve the nation’s dietary regimen are misguided, harmful and ignore the real problem — that Americans’ lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles are the root causes of obesity.

“If you talk to any dietitian or nutritionist, they will all tell you that there are no all-bad foods or all good-foods,” he stressed. “The problem is bad diets.”

“And it is going to take collaboration between industry, government, educators, the medical community. And we intend to be a stakeholder in that discussion.”

Anderson said the NRA is in favor of a bill advancing through Congress — the Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act — which would increase funding for nutrition and fitness programs in public schools.

Representatives for McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum! Brands and Wendy’s either declined to comment or did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on Banzhaf’s. allegations and threat.

A media relations assistant at Yum! Brands — whose Pizza Hut subsidiary Banzhaf currently is suing over a “veggie delight” pizza that allegedly contains beef fat — said her boss was involved in the company’s annual shareholder meeting and would be difficult to reach.

However, a week before the food policy conference, Burger King spokesman Rob Doughty said his company finds lawsuits to fight obesity “frivolous” and an “expensive waste of time.”

Although the alleged link between the brain functions of drug addicts and those of fast-food users was not discussed at the time, Doughty said Burger King would resist efforts to force more nutrition disclosure beyond what the chain already does. Those steps include making available nutritional-content charts and pamphlets and posting nutrition information on BK’s Web site.

The National Food Policy Conference where Banzhaf and Anderson squared off took place amid a recent flurry of legislative, regulatory and legal developments aimed at fast food and snack food.

In California state legislators continued to assess a bill that would require fast-food and full-service chains to post signs saying that the nutritional content was available for all foods sold except those on menus for less than six months.

In Texas the state Senate’s Education Committee expanded the scope of a bill to limit the amount of high-sugar and high-fat foods sold and served in public schools. Under the new provisions there would be specific times of the day, based on grade level, during which students could purchase soft drinks or snack food, and the products would have to be low in sugar, salt and fat.

K. Dun Clifford, president and founder of the Boston-based Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust — a nutritional research group that advocates natural foods and urges nutritionists to forget the FDA’s food pyramid and promote a Mediterranean diet pyramid and daily exercise — dismissed Banzhaf’s interpretation of the scientific data.

“You know, we’ve been doing this work a long time, and I have to say that the idea that food is as addictive as a narcotic is a hard case to make,” Clifford insisted. “This magazine, New Scientist, is what it is: a new magazine that is going to push the edges. And it’s going to say things that are going to upset some people. It’s designed to be way out there.”

While Clifford’s group is anything but a fan of fast food, that industry’s menu items have a place in American society and are not solely responsible for obesity, he said.

“You cannot make the case with a straight face that the reason Americans are overweight is that they eat too much fast food,” he argued. “Go into a sports bar, where people are smoking, drinking mugs of beer, eating giant hamburgers, or go into a KFC or a Burger King at lunch and count the number of walruses in line, and you will see that the number of lean people far outnumbers the … walruses.”

According to Clifford, “What these lawyers who want to sue fail to recognize is that being overweight or obese is a behavioral issue, and no lawsuit or law is going to change that.”

But Banzhaf is not so sure.

“I can’t sue to make people exercise more,” Banzhaf said. “But we can do something about fast food.”

Banzhaf, specializing in public-interest litigation throughout his career, has turned his legal expertise in recent years to allegations of liability among restaurant chains and snack food makers that are said to contribute to the nation’s obesity problem. He currently is litigating a spate of suits against fast feeders and snack food manufacturers under product liability laws.

In March 2002, in an action brought by his students for class credit, he won a $12.5 million settlement against McDonald’s for its alleged failure to disclose that its french fries contained beef fat. The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hindus, Muslims, vegetarians and others who said they had not known they were eating meat substances in an ostensible vegetable item.

Banzhaf, though widely criticized for his eagerness to sue corporations in order to change their behavior, defended those actions by observing that myriad obscure lawsuits had been responsible for the eventual passage of such legal landmarks as the Civil Rights Act and other statutes protecting voters and women.

“This is a movement,” Banzhaf declared, “and it’s just beginning, and one day some judge or some sympathetic jury is going to make history.”

Such talk makes the NRA’s Anderson seethe.

“This is what really galls me about all that he is doing — when he tries to compare a suit against a fast-food company as the moral equivalent of the civil-rights movement,” Anderson said. “It is a twisted and tortuous maze that does a disservice to the whole discussion on the issue.”

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COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group