WASHINGTON - While millions of consumers see a super-sized Extra Value Meal
as a real bargain, John Banzhaf sees advertising gone wrong and is trying to hold
companies accountable for rising obesity in America.
He is not alone.
Health and consumer advocates, using tactics reminiscent of those successfully
employed against the tobacco industry, are targeting the nation's food industry
by pushing for a ''fat tax,'' stepping up legislative efforts, and suing major
restaurant chains in a campaign to reduce obesity.
''The evidence certainly isn't as clear as with smoking and lung cancer, but
people are getting the idea that it's not just a matter of individual choice,''
said Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who played a key
role in lawsuits against the tobacco industry. ''Advertising influences the decisions
A small corps of health science professionals and consumer-oriented litigators
is slowly building a campaign for a leaner nation.
The food industry, facing a mounting assault on its interests, is fighting
back, pointing to the major differences between food and cancer-causing tobacco
products and dismissing many of the advocates' unorthodox proposals as absurd.
Complicating matters is the increasingly muddled debate over what is a healthy
diet. Some recent research suggests that the long ingrained advice that fat in
diets should be reduced has resulted in Americans consuming more carbohydrates,
which may be the real culprit behind obesity.
John Doyle - cofounder of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group that represents
the food, beverage, and restaurant industry - said obesity has been greatly oversimplified
by greedy trial lawyers and activists exploiting inadequate research.
''You can't demonize foods: Virtually any food can have a role in a balanced
diet,'' Doyle said. ''We don't have a problem with common sense, but this is all
populist reflexive thinking. This is ridiculous.''
Consumer advocates acknowledge that their proposals - which range from greater
government funding for nutrition and fitness campaigns to a ''fat tax'' broadly
applied to snacks - are doomed by a lack of political support in Congress. But
if they cannot win on Capitol Hill, they are willing to seek other options.
''If we can't legislate, we'll litigate,'' Banzhaf said.
Several companies, including McDonald's, have been sued for various forms
of alleged misrepresentation of what is in their food. Banzhaf said he plans to
take further action against the food industry, as new legal theories are developed.
He acknowledges that the link between the food industry and health risks is
not as obvious as it is with the tobacco industry and its addictive products.
But he said that investigators are still digging for the same type of incriminating
evidence used against the tobacco industry, including evidence of marketing intentionally
directed at children or financial pressures put on scientists involved in health
''When we proposed this a few years ago with tobacco, everyone said we were
crazy,'' Banzhaf said. ''Given the current corporate climate, the public is a
lot more likely to be suspicious of these kinds of things and give credence to
It may be difficult to turn up incriminating evidence against food companies
if their products cannot be closely linked to obesity.
In a blow to many who follow low-fat diet regimens to lose weight, new research
indicates that some types of fat may not be that bad after all. And some specialists
say that the emphasis on the adverse effects of fat may have actually helped fuel
the obesity problem, causing people to shock their endocrine systems with high-carbohydrate
diets heavy in pasta, rice, and bread.
''People are overdoing carbohydrates, particularly highly refined carbohydrates,''
said Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School
of Public Health. ''People were told to load up on Wonder Bread, baked potatoes,
and pastas, and now there are metabolic problems.''
Reform-minded health specialists say that even with these findings, Americans
are far from having an ideal diet and still eat too much. Marion Nestle, professor
of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of a new book
on food politics, said the real question is how to get people to eat less.
''I don't think the nation's food executives are sitting around saying, `Let's
make the nation fat,''' Nestle said. ''They're just trying to sell their product.
But there is phenomenal market pressure to get people to eat more at all times,
and we've never had a nutrition-information campaign of any substance in this
Despite the vigorous debate over the optimal diet, Willett said, there are
plenty of unhealthy products being promoted to children.
''You wouldn't have much of a problem getting a consensus that they are junk
food,'' he said, specifically referring to ''junk cereals'' advertised during
Saturday morning cartoons.
Elected representatives have not totally ignored the obesity issue. At least
two large states, California and Texas, have enacted restrictions on the types
of food available to children in some schools. And Senators Christopher Dodd of
Connecticut, Bill Frist of Tennessee, and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico plan to
introduce legislation before the August recess that would boost federal funding
for nutrition and physical fitness campaigns.
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders
and an original proponent of a ''fat tax,'' said extensive food industry marketing
is having an impact on children and must be addressed. ''Ronald McDonald is cute,
but at some point, we have to ask if these things are leading us down a healthy
path,'' Brownell said.
Doyle, of the Center for Consumer Freedom, accuses Brownell and others of
twisting data to promote ''crazy'' ideas. ''They've been exploiting the current
environment and are not conveying the complexity of the issue,'' he said.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company