Fat Chance

It's all about you. Your mid-afternoon candy bars. Your wallowing in all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets like a pig in mud. Your inability to just say no to that supersized French Fries, that Massive Gulp of soda, that waste paper basket full of popcorn at the gigaplex.

The personal responsibility movement, which has brought us such lumps of coal as abstinence pacts and zero tolerance of drugs even for medical purposes, is now attacking the food we eat. Correction: attacking us for the food we eat. And the worst part is, they want to take away our ability to fight back. The "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act of 2003" informally known as the "cheeseburger bill" -- passed the House in early March and is now set to stir up debate in the Senate later this spring. The bill attempts to ban all lawsuits that link the food industry to obesity or obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. Following Capitol Hill's lead, 24 states, including Arizona as of last week, have introduced bills during the 2004 session that would similarly shield the food industry from personal-injury lawsuits.

Ever since a group of obese teenagers went after McDonalds in court in 2002 for not disclosing the health consequences of successive Big Mac attacks, Big Food is running scared that the overweight will take a cue from smokers who successfully went after Big Tobacco.

The myth of the frivolous lawsuit

The food industry is only the most recent convert to tort reform -- the campaign to limit payouts on personal liability claims claims that was central to Newt Gingrich's Contract with America in 1994. Though Americans are notoriously litigious, the plague of lawsuits is largely a myth. In 1986, Ronald Reagan told an anecdote about a drunk driver plowing into a telephone booth and the unlucky caller suing. . . the telephone company! What Reagan failed to mention was that the caller tried to get out of the booth to avoid the onrushing car but the door didn't work properly -- an entirely appropriate lawsuit. As Duke University law professor Neil Vidmar persuasively argued in a 1999 essay, "The data bearing on jury trial verdicts, settlement, and frivolous litigation strongly suggest that the traditional tort system is in fact relatively effective in screening out nonmeritorious cases." And yet, tort reform, like a bad case of food poisoning, stays with us, and the "cheeseburger bill" is the latest reminder.

Let's for the moment forget knee-jerk libertarianism and its "get your dirty laws off my paunch" battle cry. Obesity is a problem, if not for you then at least for an ever increasing number of ever-increasing Americans. Two-thirds of the population are overweight, and half of those are obese. The Journal of International Obesity warns of an "epidemic." It's a problem particularly among children, the less affluent, new immigrants, and women of color. The costs are staggering: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate America's annual price tag for obesity at $117 billion. And it's not just America. In 2000, to underscore the growing global divide of haves and have nots, the number of overweight finally matched that of the undernourished at 1.1 billion each.

No panaceas

Few dispute these conclusions (aside from "big is beautiful" enthusiasts). Yet there is little consensus about how to deal with the problem. The personal responsibility movement and conservative front organizations such as the Consumer Freedom Council focus on the demand side of the equation. People should simply eat less and exercise more. Yes, and when we've accomplished these tasks, we should just be nice to each other, stop haggling over meaningless national borders and refrain from taking so many cross-country trips in our SUVs. Thus, in a thrice, we would solve murder, war and global warming without ever having to control firearms, regulate the arms trade, or restrict global carbon dioxide emissions.

Why do conservatives only talk about the supply side when the topic is taxes? Obesity is not only about us. It's also about them. Fast food restaurants, commodity councils and food processors all profit off our fat. The more health clubs that sprout up and diet books that hit the bestseller list, the more Big Food turns up the volume and frequency of its pitches. The soft drink industry alone spends $600 million a year, which Greg Critser compares in Fat Land to the National Cancer Institute's measly $1 million in fruit and vegetable promotion. Big Food runs ads on TV that burn jingles into children's brains ("two all-beef patties...") far more effectively than any Maoist slogan. Cash-strapped schools are bribed into sponsoring junk food vending machines and allowing fast food restaurants to sell their wares on school property.

Subsidizing poor nutrition

It's not just in the hawking. Much takes place behind our well-padded backs. U.S. government subsidies sustain such contributors to the national waistline as corn growers and livestock raisers, keeping prices down for beef and corn syrup. Marion Nestle's Food Politics reveals how our Food Pyramid -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommendations of how many servings of different food groups should be consumed daily -- is distorted because the Lentil Lobby and the Broccoli Bloc have nothing on the meat and dairy industries. The sugar industry -- which supplies the most money to political campaigns of any agricultural lobby -- leaned on U.S. Congress and the Bush administration to slam a 2003 World Health Organization report that urged a reduction of sugar consumption. Big Sugar had the gall to call for a reduction of its own: of U.S. contributions to the WHO.

Lawsuits have been one effective way of challenging the supply side of the equation. A suit against Kraft because of what's known as the "trans fat" in their Oreos led to the company to pledge to reduce the offending substance. A suit against McDonalds for falsely advertising that its fry oil was vegetarian when it contained traces of beef flavoring led to a multi-million dollar settlement for vegetarian groups among others. These lawsuits have helped to change the climate of opinion about fat. The suppliers are cleaning up their act. Subway has gone all Twiggy on us, with Jared and Atkins and Herman/Sherman. Ruby Tuesday will be introducing a new menu at the end of April that will give the nutritional breakdown for all of its dishes, not just the "heart healthy" ones.

Complex problems require complex solutions

And yet, obesity isn't just a question of supply and demand. It can't be solved by lawyers or personal responsibility gurus. "Litigation isn't a major cure for our obesity," Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It may be in some cases, useful -- something people ought to examine -- but obesity is caused by so many factors in our society that no one thing can solve the obesity problem."

Beneath the push me-pull you of the American political economy are the more profound structural reasons why we're all getting soft around the middle. We're addicted to cars. We can't tear ourselves away from the TV. Poorer neighborhoods are unsafe for children to exercise, and many suburbs don't have sidewalks. And, perhaps most ominously, our economic system acknowledges few limits, whether environmental, social or international. Lack of responsibility is practically hardwired into our lifestyles. At 5 percent of the global population, Americans consume nearly one-quarter of the world's resources. It would be a surprise, frankly, if we weren't overweight.

The personal responsibility movement believes that self-control -- I will not eat that fifth piece of fried chicken, I will not sue KFC for failing to inform me of what all that fried chicken skin has done to my heart -- can solve America's obesity problem. Advocates of the legal strategy want to force Big Food to put on the brakes. But the pounds will not melt away until we step away from the car, get up from the couch, make our neighborhoods more exercise-friendly, and radically change the consumption ethos that forms the soft white underbelly of the American way of life.

John Feffer is the author most recently of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.

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