Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Legal Interest Expands from Tobacco to Obesity. (News)

Academic journal article Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Legal Interest Expands from Tobacco to Obesity. (News)

Article excerpt

McDonald's breathed a sigh of relief in January when a US District Judge dismissed a suit blaming the fast-food giant for the obesity and health problems of two New York teenagers. The company could not be held responsible for customers' excesses, said Judge Robert Sweet, but it could be so for any harm caused if the food were substantially less healthy than it appeared.

The New York Times quoted from Judge Sweet's 65-page opinion in which he calls Chicken McNuggets a "McFrankenstein creation" laced with dubious ingredients such as TBHQ, a flavourless 'stabilizer,' and dimethyl-polysiloxane, an 'anti-foaming agent,' and containing twice as much fat as a hamburger. The plaintiffs' lawyer has amended the suit following the judge's advice.

Legal experts had thought for a long time that the food industry was immune to litigation efforts like those waged against the tobacco industry, eventually with considerable effect. But the recent spate of lawsuits is changing some minds. Many think now that it's just a matter of time before diet-related litigation starts succeeding.

Global illness and death attributed to obesity and its related conditions (which include diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure) are approaching tobacco's lethal impact. While smoking kills almost five million people a year, obesity kills three million and the number is growing, according to WHO's World Health Report 2002--reducing risks, promoting healthy life. A billion people in the world are overweight. Of the 300 million who are obese, more than half live in developing countries. Obesity was ranked tenth in the report's list of global disease risk factors, with maternal and child underweight in first place and tobacco use in fourth.

In her book Food politics, Marion Nestle, Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, argues that the food industry spends billions of dollars on marketing products of questionable health value to an unsuspecting public. "The public is hopelessly confused," she says, "and it's to the advantage of the food industry to keep them that way."

She thinks diet-related litigation will eventually be successful and is already having an impact. "Business groups are terrified," she reports. "They're introducing healthier products and changing their marketing techniques as fast as they can. …

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