Discussions arise on obesity litigation

Hayley Odom

Forecasting that obesity litigation could become the nation’s next lawsuit wave, University and community health experts discussed the topic with 240 listeners at Coffman Union on Tuesday.

More than 400,000 deaths occur each year because of poor diet and lack of physical activity, which might make obesity become the leading cause of death in the United States, University health official Mary Story said.

“Some have called the food industry the next ‘big tobacco,’ implying that the food industry will become the next target for

litigation to protect the public’s health,” said Story, a professor and associate dean for student affairs at the School of Public Health.

Panelists dabbled in discussion of aggressive food-industry marketing campaigns and the effect of school contracts with corporations, but most of the debate centered on whether the link between obesity and the food industry deserves litigation.

“(Litigation) is one of the many tools that can change public policy,” said panelist Margo Wootan, the Center for Science in the Public Interest nutrition policy director.

Wootan said the food industry controls relationships with public-health organizations.

“Adding salads and pedometers (to a menu) doesn’t change the fact that, overwhelmingly, the choices are poor,” she said.

The litigation issue is tricky, panelists said, because it involves factors such as personal responsibility and genealogy, which can increase chances of obesity.

“A lot of things can be done -short of litigation – to make this work,” said panelist Joseph Price, a Faegre & Benson lawyer. “If you want to change the rules, there’s Congress, the Legislature and the Food and Drug Administration.”

School of Public Health senior fellow Hubert H. Humphrey III said the prospect of litigation directly affects the University.

Litigation relies on strong investigations and research from institutions such as the University, said Humphrey, who is also senior vice president of the public affairs firm Tunheim Partners.

No food industry representatives were present at the event.

School of Public Health student Anna Abt said she came to the discussion to learn different strategies to influence public health.

“I know I go to McDonald’s to get junk food,” she said. “If they didn’t have hamburgers, I wouldn’t go there.”

She said she sometimes eats fast food because it is inexpensive.

Valerie Mendralla, a School of Public Health student, said it is unfair to blame the food industry for obesity. Rather, people should take responsibility for their eating habits.

“Obesity is not an issue for everyone,” she said. “But it could be, and it’s good to talk about it now.”