Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review July 31, 2002 / 22 Menachem-Av , 5762

Jonathan Turley

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Who needs Jenny Craig when you can have Johnnie Cochran? | Leave it to lawyers to combine the two favorite American pastimes: eating and suing. In various states, lawsuits have been filed or are being planned against the fast-food industry. Lawyers who recently received windfalls in fees from tobacco lawsuits are now eyeing fast food as the next opportunity for super-size awards.

With the exception of tobacco, there are few things that kill more people than overeating. Obesity caused more than 300,000 deaths in 2000. That same year, obesity resulted in $117 billion in health-care costs. In the last 10 years, obesity rates in the United States have increased 60%, and states like Iowa have populations with more than 20% obesity. Those figures are enough to make the most restrained personal injury lawyer salivate like Pavlov's dog.

Lawyers tend to hunt in packs, and the fast-food industry has begun to look like that slow, stumbling member of the herd--ripe for culling. Lawyers are now probing the fast-food industry in at least six different areas for potential liability.

Some theories have proved fast and easy kills. Various Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and vegetarians recently sued McDonald's over its use of animal fats in its French fries. This resulted in a relatively easy legal settlement for $12 million, including $2.5 million in legal fees, without a trial. Additional lawsuits are now being planned.

Lawyers, however, are looking for much bigger returns in linking fast food to widespread deaths and injuries in the same fashion as tobacco. This effort was given a boost recently by studies linking French fries and other potato products to cancer. It appears that a large serving of McDonald's fries includes 72 micrograms of acrylamide, a probable cancer-causing compound that the Environmental Protection Agency limits to 0.12 micrograms in an eight-ounce glass of water. While these studies are in their early stages, they put fast-food companies on notice and, if confirmed later, could result in liability.

Other possible theories may target advertising campaigns, particularly those directed to families. As a father of three boys under 4, I can attest to the almost hypnotic effect of the Happy Meal. There is hardly a need for a surgeon general's warning. I realize I am buying concentrated fat and acrylamides in a box, but they come with toys.

I am left with a choice of long-term cancer and obesity risks on the one hand and, on the other, the immediate benefit of strapping three children into restraints and rendering them semiconscious in a fat- and toy-induced trance. On some Saturday afternoons, I would pry McNuggets from the cold, dead fingers of Ronald McDonald, if necessary.

It is precisely the success of these campaigns that may attract lawyers under either product-liability theories or consumer protection statutes. To the extent that these meals are not wholesome as advertised, fast-food businesses are vulnerable to allegations of misrepresentation, fraud and negligence.

Lawyers are not the only ones who could benefit from targeting the fast-food industry. Politicians have already staked out their possible share in "fighting the fat."

Various states are considering adding "sin taxes" on junk food to make their citizens better aware of their dangers. This idea would also add billions in new taxes for legislatures that spent their way back into debt in the last few years.

Legislators have long relied on the profits of "sin." Such taxes on cigarettes make the federal and state governments the greatest beneficiaries of smoking. The tobacco settlements resulted in huge amounts of money going to the states, which led to a frenzy of spending. With this money gone, a new taxable sin would be most welcome.

Lawyers also will find an eager ally among nutritionists and dieticians who view dining out a bit differently from the rest of us.

Whereas a plate of fettuccine Alfredo is generally seen as a Northern Italian delight, experts have labeled it "a heart attack on a plate." Whereas most of us view a Starbucks white chocolate mocha as a refreshing afternoon pick-me-up, its 600-calorie load has been described as "drinking a Big Mac."

Of course, there remain some significant hurdles to holding the Cheesecake Factory liable for the fact that you ordered a slice of its carrot cake with more than 1,500 calories and enough fat to lubricate an infantry fighting vehicle. Our society is saturated by fats, and it is hard to isolate a single source.

Moreover, obesity has various potential causes, and the connection between repeated "Big Mac attacks" and one heart attack is difficult to establish. Finally, there is the question of personal responsibility, which seems often ignored in these massive lawsuits. We may soon see campaigns from the industry reminding us that "Twinkies don't kill people, people kill people."

Nevertheless, the idea of slimming down through litigation has a curious appeal today. Increasingly, we look to litigation to address our irresistible impulses and to correct our personal choices. Who cares if some lawyers get fatter if we get skinnier.

In some ways, it is a relief. I have informed my wife that my recent weight gain is nothing less than a long-term investment. As a potential plaintiff, I could well be eating myself into prosperity; carrying the kids' college fund around my midsection, safe from stock market fluctuations. Who needs Jenny Craig when you can have Johnnie Cochran?

It may be the ultimate American diet plan brought to you by your friends at the American Bar Assn.

Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law George Washington University Law School. Comment by clicking here.

07/22/02: The meaning of justice and the madness of Zacarias Moussauoi
07/16/02: The President vs. the Presidency
07/08/02: How one woman's whims dictates the rights of millions
07/02/02: Just say 'no' to extracurricular activities
06/24/02: Missing Ted Bundy
06/10/02: A comedy of eros06/14/02: 05/31/02: Beyond the 'reformed FBI' hype
05/23/02: Do we really need a Federal Marriage Amendment?
05/19/02: No "battlefield detainee" should leave home without a U.S. birth certificate
05/10/02: The perfect constitutional storm
04/26/02: 'Slave of Allah' wounds justice
04/12/02: The importance of being nameless
04/05/02: The adjusted value of justice
03/18/02: How Clinton got off: A law professor's take
03/11/02: Profiling and the terrorist lottery
03/05/02: Yes, Sharpton, there was a failure of justice
02/28/02: The Lay of the land
02/14/02: Living in constitutional denial
02/05/02: Legal Lesson for Afghanistan: War's Not a Slip-and-Fall Case
01/25/02: Sever "Jihad Johnny"'s ties to his homeland
01/21/02: "Out of sight, out of mind," but they're still prisoners
01/14/02: Your papers, please!
01/07/02: Prescription for disaster
12/18/01: Madison and the Mujahedeen
12/07/01: In the U.S., espionage crime is easy to understand but difficult to prove
11/19/01: What type of 'creature' would defend bin Laden?
11/19/01: Could bin Laden be acquitted in a trial?
10/28/01: The ultimate sign of the different times in which we are living
10/25/01: Al-Qaida produces killers, not thinkers
09/28/01: The Boxer rebellion and the war against terrorism
08/31/01: Bring back the silent Condit
08/27/01: Working out the body politic

© 2002, Jonathan Turley