At least they are public about it. But not too public thanks to the media that gives little attention to this cottage industry. This past weekend a few dozen health professionals and the lawyers they love got together in Boston for the 2nd Annual conference of Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic. Dont let the vagueness of that title fool you. Though the conference focused on litigation, regulation and taxation, it was the first of those that drew the most attention.
Heading up the panel entitled, Patience, hell. Lets sue somebody, was George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf III. Other speakers had discussed everything from marketing to food addiction. Banzhaf wasnt so subtle.
After reminding the crowd how helpful the courts have been in everything from civil rights to environmental protection to homosexual rights, Banzhaf began ticking off his laundry list of potential legal targets.
-- Parents especially during custody hearings;
-- School boards and individual members;
-- Doctors who dont tell obese patients to lose weight.
Another lawyer on the panel said, The food industry has the mindset of Enron. If you guessed that they plan to sue everybody in the industry, you would probably be right.
Its unfortunate that lawsuit advocates and the Nanny State dont understand how a free market works. Heck, its a concept so simple that even Kevin Costners Field of Dreams character Ray Kinsella could manage it. If you build it, he will come.
The food industry certainly realizes it. According to a Slate article from last September, No one can specify the size of the Atkins market, but experts estimate it's at least $1 billion per year. In other words, if customers want smaller sizes, fewer calories or fewer carbs, the industry will gladly provide it to them.
Thats all it takes. No laws. No regulations. No wild-eyed lawyers chasing ice cream trucks instead of ambulances. We just need a free market solution with a dash of personal responsibility thrown in.
Instead, we get a roomful of people who want to control what industry makes, what they say, what they sell and what we eat. (And maybe grab a hefty legal fee at the same time.) Here are just a few nuggets from their discussions:
-- They want warning labels on soft drinks that warn, May cause obesity.
-- They want food labeling in restaurants. They dont mention that they want to use any discrepancies between the labels and actual foods as another reason to sue.
-- They support taxes to fight the food industry such as a $1.5 billion levy on soda each year.
-- They back serving free fruits and vegetables in all schools, even if that costs billions of dollars.
The real message from the conference is two-fold. The first part is that the left is gunning for any business involved in food production including ones they like. Speakers attacked companies from Pepsi to McDonalds. Even liberal actor Paul Newman was skewered for his product line because it uses high fructose corn syrup which isnt natural (Newman donates all of the profits from his salad dressings and has given more than $150 million to charities since 1982). The speakers targeted whole industries as well as corn growers, the meat industry, supermarket chains, restaurants, etc.
The other message came from the media, which was largely absent. It doesnt take a Microsoft Word document to understand we have a lawsuit crisis in this country. Unfortunately, a planning session to sue an entire industry didnt seem exciting enough for most of the major media.
Ironically, the conference achieved in two days what the speakers damned the food industry for the very thing that makes them worthy of being sued. Speaker after speaker discussed food, showed advertisements and pictures of Oreos and other tasty snacks, in effect promoting the products and making us hungry. They also gave us a large supply of food with cake, muffins and bagels and cream cheese. (Yes, we had a few healthy items as well, but it wasnt a tofu fest.) Of course some in the crowd overate. Then, to make matters worse, they had us sit for hour after hour, just like most of us do in our day jobs.
I cant speak for my fellow attendees, but I figure they made me hungry, then gave me too much to eat and discouraged exercise. In my case, that probably worked out to a pound or two.
Perhaps, Professor Banzhaf needs help filing a new class action suit.
(The author, Dan Gainor, is director of the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute)