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Jewish World Review June 13, 2001/ 23 Sivan 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Next lawsuit? When Big Mac attacks --
ON the same day last week that smoker Richard Boeken was awarded a staggering $3 billion for successfully contracting lung cancer after 40 years of smoking Marlboro cigarettes, a new study was released announcing that obese people invite greater health risks than smokers or drinkers.

Conducted by the RAND institute, a non-profit research-and-development think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., and published recently in the British journal Public Heath, the study was based on telephone interviews with 9,585 adults. Among the findings: Obese people have far more health problems than either daily smokers or heavy drinkers; and, three of every five adult Americans are either overweight (36 percent) or obese (23 percent).

Which is to say, the blame game just got more interesting. Whom, after all, can people blame for health problems associated with eating too much food? The food manufacturers? Distributors? Advertisers?

This is a silly notion, of course. If you suffuse your body with fat-laden, sugary foods, you're likely to get fat. Everybody knows it, yet we don't require McDonald's to put health warnings on its Big Mac wrappers.

Even if there were such a warning, how many people would read "34 grams of fat," trash the burger and say, "Forget it, I'm not gonna eat that junk!" Probably not many more than extinguish their cigarettes upon reading the warning label on cigarette packs. After 30 years of surgeon general's warnings and millions spent on anti-smoking campaigns, some 50 million Americans still choose to smoke.

Boeken, 56, was one of those, though he claimed in his lawsuit against Philip Morris, the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes, not to have known about the hazards of smoking until the mid-'90s, shortly before he was diagnosed with lung cancer that now has spread to his brain, back and lymph nodes.

It's not pleasant to criticize someone who's dying of cancer, but Boeken's case and the jury's scandalous award demand scrutiny. Our legal system can ill afford to entertain every victim of bad choices nor can our society afford to condone litigious excuses as a substitute for personal responsibility.

To understand the absurdity of Boeken's claim we need only imagine the potential fall-out from the RAND obesity study, a timely foil to Boeken's and others' demands for compensatory damages when willing behaviors lead to unwelcome consequences.

One can easily see that fat people's claims of victimhood would be absurd if their food choices and caloric intake exceed metabolic requirements. Sugar and fat in excessive amounts are known to cause obesity, which is known to increase health risks. All you have to do is look around a doctor's waiting room to connect the dots.

Even if you ignore the ubiquitous health news in daily newspapers and on television, any reasonably sober adult can follow the chain of logic that links body fat to food intake. It's the exact same chain that links shortness of breath and physical malaise to daily smoke inhalation. Fat/food; cancer/smoke.

But we're not fond of suggesting to obese people that they're responsible for their condition, not to mention our nation's rising health costs. It seems, well, impolite.

Ironically, we have no problem stigmatizing smokers for their annoying habit, sending them to segregated "lounges" or outside to inhale carcinogenic tobacco constituents, while rewarding them later for their behavior.

It's not their fault, we seem to be saying. Blame the tobacco company for selling a legal product that comes fully loaded with health warnings. Blame anyone but the man who decided for 40 years that smoking two packs of cigarettes a day was worth the risk.

With 59 percent of the American population overweight, we can easily foresee a future health crisis with millions of overeaters suffering chronic diseases. Will they turn to the courts and food manufacturers to pay for their bad habits? Of course not. No one forced them to eat that way. Or did they?

Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," condemned the fast-food industry in his book for promoting high-fat diets, which he says may be responsible for many of our health problems. Can fat-suits be far behind smoker-suits?

The RAND study concluded that public health officials should tackle obesity as a national health problem with the same intensity they used in fighting tobacco. Fat people beware. You may eventually reap damages from predatory food companies that tantalize you with potentially lethal foodstuffs, but first you're going to have to pay your dues. You'll have to consume those offensive cream puffs in the Overeater's Lounge.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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