Anti-Obesity Activists Take Aim at Food Industry

Published May 1, 2002

The television news media has jumped on the obesity bandwagon, providing a platform for self-described consumer activists who blame the food industry for obesity.

Instead of encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own behavior and its effect on their health, these activists suggest restaurants “should be held accountable” for the eating habits of their customers. They propose tobacco-style litigation against the food industry.

Fox News warned of “an increasingly less hypothetical lawsuit that could change the way the U.S. eats. Hungry lawyers are eyeing food, considering legal action against everyone from fast-food chains to the nation’s leading snack food companies.”

The Tobacco Connection

John Banzhaf, a lawyer and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), suggests the tactics used successfully against the tobacco industry, and less successfully against gun manufactures, could be turned against the food industry. ASH paid Banzhaf $175,100 in 2000 for his promotion of “lawsuit kits” for anti-tobacco suits.

The tobacco parallel comes up again with Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Says Wootan, “Poor diet and a lack of activity kill as many people as tobacco, but people don’t think about it as being as deadly as tobacco.” CSPI wants a tax on every can of soda sold.

Fish and Chips

Britain offers a preview of food-fight tactics that could be used in the U.S. Public health activists there say the economic impact of a poor diet is much greater than the impact of smoking or alcohol.

Like U.S. anti-tobacco crusaders—who painted smoking a public health threat (rather than an individual lifestyle choice) to make sure Medicare and Medicaid would cover its ill-effects—public health experts in England claim obesity is a “public health threat,” straining the public health system and therefore requiring government regulation. The National Health Service (NHS) has already begun distributing drugs to control the over-eating habits of obese citizens. U.K. experts even blame the industrialized approach to food production for obesity, claiming small-scale producers make less-fattening foods.

Fat Prohibition

In a report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also funds CSPI, Deborah Cohen wrote of alcohol, “Consumption by any individual is, in part, a function of the overall distribution of consumption of the community.” According to Cohen, eliminating the availability of a product to the entire community will lead to behavioral shifts that will reduce the number of people who abuse the product. Cohen has called for government intervention in the war on obesity.

That’s not just wrong, it’s rude, writes Miss Manners columnist Judith Martin.

“It is being said that illnesses caused or exacerbated by obesity may soon constitute the chief cause of preventable deaths, overtaking the current scourge, which is tobacco.

“Then came the plague, not just of smoking scofflaws, but of righteous busybodies. Newly empowered with public support, nonsmokers started polluting the atmosphere with unsolicited and insulting health care. Nor have they been intimidated from doing this in regard to the eating habits of those whom they deem to be overweight.”

Pounding on Freedom

Responding to a Los Angeles politician’s call for a full ban on smoking in public parks, Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine wrote, “since L.A. already has a law against littering, and tobacco smoke in the open air hardly seems like a pressing environmental concern, it seems City Councilwoman Jan Perry is interested in banning smoking only because she dislikes it.

“Perry herself says, ‘When kids see adults smoking in a family-friendly place like a park, it normalizes smoking and causes it to be approved behavior.'”

What would happen if Perry’s worries about “approved behavior” were “extended to other areas of public health,” Sullum wonders, noting U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher’s declaration of war on obesity came at the same time as Perry called for the smoking ban.

Sullum, with tongue-in-cheek, declares: “Banning fat people from public parks, where they set a bad example for the kids, is an obvious first step.

“I’m not talking about a complete ban on obesity,” continues Sullum. “People would still be free to be fat in the privacy of their own homes (provided they have no children)—they would just not be allowed to go out in public until they slimmed down.”

For more information …

Jacob Sullum’s December 25, 2001 column, “Lighten Up, America!” is available on the Internet at