Lawsuits blame fast food for the nation’s ‘super size’ waistlines

Britt Johnsen

Obesity is one of the biggest U.S. health problems, and some people want restaurants to pay.

In July 2002, KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s were sued for allegedly deceptive marketing and blamed for causing obesity.

Other suits followed, and now experts are debating the viability of holding restaurants responsible for obesity.

Some lawyers said it will be a difficult case to settle.

“There are so many factors that impact obesity,” said attorney Michael Weber of Weber Law Office. “These cases, are still very difficult cases, and the chances of succeeding with them are pretty slim.”

Other experts compare the obesity issue with the tobacco lawsuits, in which people successfully sued tobacco companies over their addictions.

In those cases, the courts ruled that false claims of health, misleading advertising and addictive additives in tobacco products made the companies responsible for peoples’ addictions.

However, Weber said making a strong case against restaurants and food companies will be difficult because people choose what to consume and whether they balance their diets.

Public opinion might also be a stumbling block for the lawsuits.

A Gallup Poll in July found that 89 percent of Americans oppose holding restaurants legally liable for health problems.

“I think it’s possible this kind of case would be pushed, but it would most likely be pushed by an attorney rather than a particular person,” Weber said.

Whether restaurants are legally responsible for health problems is now left for the courts.

But Boynton Health Service has its own ideas about what is making Americans fat.

Boynton public health director David Golden said a 2001 mail survey to 3,000 random students showed a direct correlation between dining out and obesity.

“We thought it was interesting,” Golden said. “There is a statistical significance of obesity (in people who eat out).”

Golden said obesity is a serious health concern that puts people at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and increased cholesterol levels, and some types of cancer.

Although Weber said no lawsuits have been filed in Minnesota, some campus restaurants said they disagree with blaming restaurants for obesity.

“I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility,” said Tony Patterson, owner of Sally’s Saloon & Eatery and Bobby Z’s. “People like deep-fried food. If we start to regulate restaurants, what’s next?”

Patterson also said lawsuits would most likely lead restaurants to change their menus and offer healthy options, but he said Sally’s already offers healthy alternatives, including soups and vegetarian items.

Despite healthy menu options, Ed Ehlinger, Boynton Health Service director and chief health officer, said he thinks people would benefit from not eating out at all. He said people will eat healthier and save money if they eat at home more often.

“I think we need to get back to eating at the table in (our) own kitchen(s),” Ehlinger said.

Ehlinger said restaurants’ large portions are major contributors to obesity – which also relates to America’s overproduction of food.

“We are providing more than we can consume, and super-sizing is a marketing strategy,” Ehlinger said. “We should use that food for other countries where people are starving and portions are minimal.”