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Activists Target Nation's Food Industry by Pushing for a 'Fat Tax'
Published on Sunday, July 21, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Advocates Target Food Chains, Seek 'Fat Tax' Tactics
Resemble Antismoking Effort
by Bret Ladine

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 we make.''

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 studies.

''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 the evidence.''

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 country.''

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


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