Obesity Lawsuits — This Could Get Interesting

McD

Despite the failure of the “Cheeseburger Bill” to become federal law, the notion that Big Food is innocent of blame for the obesity epidemic flourished in several states, which have passed their own versions. Had the idea not spontaneously occurred to the states, the American Legislative Exchange Council would surely have prodded them to throw legal armor around the food manufacturers and protect the giant corporations from liability.

Yes, this is the dreaded ALEC, of which many Americans have become increasingly wary. The largely corporate-funded “focus group” wrote up a model bill, the “Common-Sense Consumption Act,” which is similar to the proposed (and failed) federal “American Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act.” Any state that wants to spare itself the trouble of either studying the issues impartially or drafting its own legislation is welcome to use the model bill.

For the corporate entities (and especially for their attorneys), a ready defense is as important as ever, because they know obesity isn’t going away any time soon. How do they know? Because they are still doing what they have been doing all along. So, how could the result be different?

According to the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. cost of diabetes in 2012 was $245 billion — $69 billion of which stems from what statisticians call “reduced productivity,” and that ghostly figure is open to disputation by representatives of other economic paradigms. So let’s just go with the direct medical costs of diabetes in the U.S. in one year — $176 billion.

What if the makers of high fructose corn syrup had to pony up that amount each year — pay the medical bills of anyone who demanded it and reimburse the government (a.k.a. us taxpayers) for taking care of indigent diabetics? Is that such a crazy idea? William Anderson detailed how Big Tobacco was overtaken by a similar fate. He notes that the Centers for Disease Control place the annual medical cost of American obesity at $147 billion per year, and asks:

Will the country and the states be able to sue the food companies and make them pay for the medical cost due to the epidemic they have created? Will we be able to force them to stop making food hyper-addictive and stop targeting kids? Will we be able to force them to fund programs to educate people and help them to solve their obesity problems? Why not? We did it with the tobacco companies. We won those suits because it was found that the tobacco companies were responsible for intentionally causing us harm and expense for profit.

Greg Ryan of Law360.com speculates that a lawsuit over obesity could succeed if evidence emerges that food companies purposely make products that are “more unhealthy than necessary,” which would include intentionally making them addictive.  He quotes attorney James Neale, who…

…suggested the food industry could be subject to a public nuisance lawsuit brought by a city or state, similar to the one underway in California against makers of lead paint over the risks their products pose to the public. That lawsuit was brought by California cities and counties.

That particular variety of legal action might be possible because, through a sort of benign loophole, the restrictions decreed by a state’s “Cheeseburger Bill” may not apply. But meanwhile, other legal precedents are chipping away at the ordinary citizen’s likelihood of winning any kind of product liability suit.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Economic costs of diabetes in the U.S. In 2012,” NIH.gov, 03/06/13
Source: “Should the U.S. Sue Food Companies for the Costs of the Obesity Epidemic?” HuffingtonPost.com, 10/20/2014
Source: “Wary Of Litigation, States Keep Cheeseburger Bills On Menu,” Law360.com, 08/05/13
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