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Are Fast Food Restaurants To Blame?

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

Caesar Barber will go down in history as the first man to sue fast food restaurants for making him overweight and ailing.

The 56-year-old New Yorker is the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that points the finger at McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken as the leading cause of obesity and other health-related problems.

Barber claims his pair of heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol -- not to mention his obesity -- are the direct results of eating fast foods on a regular basis.

The 5’10", 270-pound plaintiff claims no family history of any of the ailments from which he suffers. It’s fast food’s fault, he says.

"They said '100 percent beef.' I thought that meant it was good for you," Barber told Newsday. "I thought the food was OK.

"Those people in the advertisements don't really tell you what's in the food. It's all fat, fat and more fat. Now I'm obese."

Barber, his lawyer and all the other people who've jumped on the bad food bandwagon are convinced they have a strong case. But many people who've heard of this lawsuit are shaking their heads and muttering it "frivolous" at best.

But George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf doesn’t need convincing. The lawyer firmly believes there’s merit to Barber’s accusations. Banzhaf also believes he and millions of other patrons have been duped for decades by the fast food restaurants. Banzhaf has come aboard as an advisor to Barber’s case which he says is the latest in a growing string of legal actions taken against so-called Big Food in recent years.

Banzhaf is no stranger to butting heads with big business. The public health advocate spent the past 35 years campaigning against the tobacco industry. He was one of the first lawyers to sue Big Tobacco in the '60s. Now the attorney/activist has turned his energies to a new archenemy.

Banzhaf and his law students have already gone after McDonald’s for allegedly misrepresenting French fries by not disclosing that they contained beef fat, a fact that left many vegetarians horrified. They’ve gone after Pizza Hut for using beef fat in the Veggie Lover’s pizza. There’s also the suit against the makers of Pirates Booty corn and rice puff snack food for under-representing the fat content by more than 340 percent.

McDonald’s issued an apology, agreed to provide adequate disclosure of the fat content of its French fries and will pay out more than $12 million in the one suit. Banzhaf believes a precedent has been set.

Obesity is running rampant and an estimated 40 percent of our meals coming from restaurants. To Banzhaf this makes for a clear-cut case of negligence. Although a cheeseburger isn’t as deadly as a cigarette, there are things he says restaurants can do that tobacco companies could not.

“As a practical matter, tobacco companies can’t change cigarettes in such a way to avoid liability,” Banzhaf tells eDiets. “They can’t say, ‘we’ve seen the light. We’re afraid of lawsuits. We’ll change and stop making dangerous cigarettes.’

"But the food industry can say, ‘we’ve seen the light. We’re afraid of lawsuits. We can start providing clear and conspicuous disclosure of calories and fat content. We can provide healthful alternatives. We can do this and continue to make tons of money.’

“We’re suggesting a few small, simple changes that won’t hurt them.”

Currently, consumers are lucky if the restaurants post the nutritional information at all. And most of the time when they do, Banzhaf says, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

“You should be able to go into a McDonald’s, look up at the board, and right up there where it says meal 1, 2, 3 and 4, it should say, ‘this meal has 120 percent of the calories you should have in one day and 95 percent of the fat you should have in one day.’ It should be right there where you’re looking, not stuck somewhere in a book or a brochure.

“When you’re watching television at night and you see the commercial for the big triple bacon cheeseburger, there should also be something that says that it has more fat than you should have in an entire day. There should be a warning that fat consumption can be hazardous to your health or lead to heart attacks. Maybe then that person who gets a Big Mac attack will decide against getting the Big Mac.”

Posting the nutritional values in plain view. Issuing warning labels on fast food. Offering healthier alternatives to the traditional fatty fare. Banzhaf claims these are "the profits" he hopes to earn through litigation. He tells eDiets he won’t make a dime from the suits. And that's fine with him.

Banzhaf says he’d rather the government be doing the dirty work. Whether it’s having public service announcements about the dangers of fast foods or creating a sin tax on junk food, there are plenty of steps the government could be taking, Banzhaf notes.

But since Big Government hasn't gone after Big Food to Banzhaf's liking he feels obligated to take on the No. 2 public health issue of obesity the same way he took on the No. 1 public health issue of smoking. One reason his public health beef extends to pizza, chicken and burger joints: studies show smoking kills 500,000 people every year, while obesity accounts for a tragic 300,000 death annually.

What do our dietitians and nutritionists think about idea of someone suing a restaurant for making them fat? Could it possibly put an end to the obesity problem or get people to quit eating junk food the same way tobacco lawsuits got people to quit smoking?

eDiets director of nutrition Susan Burke says that while she applauds Banzhaf’s efforts with anti-smoking campaigns, she’s not so sure the same thing can be accomplished by suing fast food joints.

“Food is not an addictive substance the way cigarettes and nicotine are," Susan says. "We have laws against cigarettes and nicotine being sold to minors because minors don’t have the same maturity as adults. That’s why they enact laws for minors.

"You can’t legislate food the same way. Food is not a physically addictive substance. Nobody can put it in your mouth, chew it and swallow it for you. You can’t legislate thinness in America."

Susan does however agree with Banzhaf’s call to action. Restaurants can provide healthier choices, less fried foods and smaller portions, she says. They can also stop penalizing customers for taking the healthy options (i.e. the 39-cent cheeseburger vs. the $1.99 salad).

The bottom line: people have to take responsibility for their actions. Susan maintains the only real victims are the children, who don’t have the ability to choose.

“Nothing will change until the American public buys into the fact that obesity is going to kill them. Then we’re going to make a change. And that takes education. We need to start with how we treat our children.

“When I was a kid physical fitness was a part of daily life. School lunches meant healthy choices. Portion sizes were smaller. You didn’t have the opportunity to buy sodas. Now physical fitness is optional in some schools. Some school lunch programs fund themselves with the sales of fast food and kids can buy junk food instead of regular meals. That’s irresponsible and that’s what should be legislated.”

While there are no guarantees that Barber will win his suit against the Fab Four of fast food chains, Banzhaf says it’s a step in the right direction. He knows it will take time to slay the Big Food Goliath; lawyers litigated at least 20 years before a jury ever placed part of the blame on the tobacco industry.

“I’m not sure we can necessarily do it in the first, second or even fifth case, but in the end, we will," he says with confidence.

To learn more about this public health advocate, click here.

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