Attack on Fast Food Jeopardizes Public Health Community

Published August 1, 2003

Attorney John Banzhaf, who for years has litigated against tobacco, purportedly in an effort to protect public health, has announced his intention to solve another public-health problem–obesity–by suing fast-food restaurants.

Banzhaf declared in July that cigarettes were not, after all, the only legally available product that is both addictive and hazardous when used as intended, and that cigarette manufacturers were not the only ones who covered up the hazards of their product.

Banzhaf’s argument–that so-called “fast food” fare, like cigarettes, is addictive and causes illness and death–is ludicrous. Food supports life and contributes to obesity only when it is overused–that is, when we consume more calories (regardless of the source) than are expended in exercise.

You will become overweight whether your excess calories come from beer, butter, beans, or burgers. True, many fast-food establishments serve up some gargantuan portions that can, in one sitting, get you close to the desirable calorie finish line for the entire day. But ultimately, consumers need to be responsible for what and how much they consume.

The credibility of the public health community is now in severe jeopardy. We who have dedicated our careers to science-based efforts to reduce premature disease and death should vehemently protest Banzhaf’s tactics. Legal actions that may be appropriate against makers of cigarettes, a product that kills about half of its users, are clearly outrageous against firms that sell safe, nutritious, wholesome foods.

Indeed, Banzhaf’s proposed lawsuit against food chains calls into question his motivation–and that of some other anti-smoking advocates–in campaigns against cigarette companies: Were they based on public health concerns?

Over the years, I have frequently heard members of the anti-smoking community complain tobacco companies were “profiting by selling deadly products,” leaving me to wonder if they thought it would be acceptable so long as the companies simply gave away their deadly products. What irked them more: the hazards of cigarettes or the profits?

There is evident in the anti-smoking community a general antipathy toward corporations–not just cigarette makers–which has made it difficult for the movement to stay on message.

Those of us who are outspoken on the dangers of cigarettes but who also, for instance, argue that regulated food additives and pesticides do not pose health hazards, or that food irradiation and products of biotechnology are safe, are viewed with skepticism, as if we can’t really be anti-smoking because we failed the general anti-industry litmus test.

Now Banzhaf’s willingness to apply the same legal tactics against food that he used on companies selling life-threatening cigarettes suggests his agenda is mainly fueled not by health concerns but by a general contempt for profit-making enterprises, regardless of whether the product is hazardous or not.

To effectively respond to these assaults on food companies and distributors, it is essential to understand the ultimate grievance these self-appointed advocates have against corporations. It may not be tobacco, fat, sugar or calories–but profits. In some cases, the advocates, cloaked in the garb of public health, may actually be seeking to extract a portion of those profits for themselves.

The cruelest blow Banzhaf has dealt to public health, though, is ending the isolation of Big Tobacco. He has now lowered the burger and fries crowd to the same level as tobacco in the public health hall of shame. Cigarette manufacturers can now consider using a new slogan: “We’re no worse than fast food.”

Cigarette executives may be delighted Banzhaf has put fast food on the docket next to cigarettes, but those of us in the public health profession should not be.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.