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Is Obesity America’s Future Epidemic? - 2003-07-21

Americans spend one hundred and ten billion dollars on fast food each year. That's more money than they spend on university-level education or on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and music combined. But this steady diet of high-fat, high-caloric food means that two-thirds of all Americans are overweight.

Katherine Tallmadge, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says 300-thousand people die each year of deaths related to obesity. “The costs of obesity are far-reaching, “ she says, “it's the second leading cause of preventable death next to smoking. All of America's major, expensive chronic illnesses are related to obesity. The major drugs, the major pharmaceuticals that people buy are related to obesity: cholesterol medications; high blood pressure medications; diabetes medications. They're all obesity-related.”

Ms. Tallmadge says changes in society such as technology that cuts down on the amount of physical activity required to do a job or suburban growth and neighborhoods spread out so that people drive instead of walk have contributed to America's obesity epidemic. But so has evolution and survival of the fittest.

“The United States agricultural system puts out 38-hundred calories per person per day,” says Ms. Tallmadge. “ What that means practically speaking is there's a lot of food; it's everywhere; it's delicious; it's cheap; and it's being pushed by the marketers. And being human, having survived many, many centuries of famine, we have natural urges to want to eat when food is available and to eat the most fattening food.”

Because of the economic costs associated with Americans' obesity, public health advocates are looking for ways to offset them. Some have proposed putting a tax on soft drinks and junk food, much like the "sin tax" many states already levy on cigarettes to discourage people from smoking. Advocates say a one-cent tax on soda pop alone would bring in one-point-five billion dollars a year in tax revenues. A portion of the revenues could be used to advertise healthy food such as fruits and vegetables or to counter-advertise junk food.

However, the food industry and many Americans are opposed to such a tax. This has led some to take another page out of the campaign against tobacco lawsuits.

The lawsuits against the fast food industry charge that popular chain restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's have been irresponsible and deceptive in the posting of the nutritional information about their food and in their advertising. Further, the lawsuits allege that these fast food chains have created an addiction in their consumers.

Dave Warner, director of communications for the Institute for Legal Reform at the U-S Chamber of Commerce, says only two lawsuits against fast-food companies have been filed and both were thrown out. “That doesn't mean that we've seen the end of them,” says Mr. Warner. “What is happening is that these lawsuits can be filed in the first place. Whether they succeed is another story. So it's the potential lawsuits that the companies want to avoid. The other point of this is that a couple of weeks ago in Boston there was a seminar for plaintiff's trial lawyers showing them how to file cases against fast-food companies. So even though only two suits have been filed, this is a concern that trial lawyers are looking for their next target.”

There are some differences between the lawsuits against the big tobacco companies and those brought against the fast and processed-food industry, says Bob Levy of the Cato Institute, a research organization in Washington.

“The food manufacturers have not misbehaved in the way the tobacco manufacturers misbehaved,” says Mr. Levy. “ They haven't lied to their consumers, or at least there is no evidence that they have. They haven't testified falsely about any addictive qualities of their product. They haven't tried to foment illegal sales. Tobacco products are illegal for minors. Food products are not.”

Mr. Levy adds that while fast and processed-food may be tasty, it is not addictive, like tobacco products. “What the tobacco companies did when they got sued for billions and billions of dollars is they simply raised the price of their product. And they had a consumer base that in some cases was addicted to their product and thus was not sensitive to price increases. Or not as sensitive as they would otherwise have been. Most people if they don't like high prices simply stop buying. Addicted customers can't do that.”

Some plaintiffs' lawyers have tried to argue that fast-food restaurants try to make their products addictive so that customers can't help themselves when it comes to eating the stuff. But nutritionists concede that while McDonald's French fries may be hard to resist, they are not actually addictive. However, they are heavily marketed.

According to Advertising Age magazine, the food industry spends about 10 billion dollars per year on promoting itself. McDonald's spends an annual one billion dollars in ads, Coca-Cola another 880-million, whereas the National Cancer Institute's program that encourages Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables has a three million dollar budget.

Margot Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says healthy foods just can't compete. “Most of the messages that Americans get about what to eat come from the food industry and most ads are for high calorie, low nutrition foods. Only 2% of advertising by food manufacturers is for fruit, vegetables, grains, and beans combined. So if the food industry isn't promoting healthy foods, then it's going to be up to governments to step in and have some strong nutrition campaigns that give people tips about how to fit healthy eating into their busy lifestyles.”

However, with the Bush Administration forecasting one-point-nine trillion dollars in new debt over the next five years and state and local governments already facing the worse budget crisis in decades, it seems unlikely that the government will find the funds for a massive public health campaign promoting better eating habits.

In light of Americans' weight problems and fearful of more lawsuits, many companies are taking steps to make their products healthier. McDonald's and Wendy's both offer salads and lower-calorie menu choices, while Kraft Foods, the nation's largest food company, recently announced it would redesign its products to make them healthier and help combat the obesity epidemic.

Gene Grabowski, vice president of communications and marketing at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry trade association, says Kraft's decision was market-driven. “Beyond the threat of the lawsuits, there is the adverse publicity that lawsuits like this create, frivolous or not,” says Mr. Grabowski.”

“We don't think that they have merit at this point," he says, "but the bigger issue here is doing the right thing for consumers irrespective of the lawsuits. And the food industry is responding to the market place. Consumers have been telling us for some time now that they want what we call 'better-for-you-foods'. And 'better-for-you-foods' the lower calorie foods, the lower sugar foods are growing at the fastest rate of any other segment in our business. They are growing at about a 12% rate every year. So the food industry is just responding to consumer demands for 'better-for-you-foods.'"

Whether driven by market-demand or by fear of pending lawsuits, public health advocates welcome Kraft's decision and hope more food companies will follow, although they admit that ultimately it's a personal decision about what or what not to eat.