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    A Times Editorial

    Smarter eating beats lawsuits

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 23, 2002

    Imagine the possible new product slogans. Lay's potato chips: Please, eat just one. Almond Joy candy bars: Sometimes you feel like a nut -- and sometimes you feel like a spinach salad.

    An era of health-conscious advertising could be around the corner as more and more U.S. food and beverage manufacturers fear they are being set up to take the blame for the nation's ever-expanding waistlines. Hoping to avoid a backlash of criticism and an onslaught of class-action lawsuits, some packaged-food companies are considering ads that urge consumers not to overeat on their products. Some are donating exercise equipment to schools. Others are preparing for legal action in case they are sued for feeding the growing health crisis.

    Since the U.S. Surgeon General's report in December said the country's obesity rates had reached epidemic levels and called for a "national plan of action," U.S. food manufacturers have become increasingly defensive -- and with good reason. Obesity may soon pass tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death (trial lawyers can already smell the megabucks). About 30,000 Americans are estimated to have died of obesity-related causes in 2000. The preliminary efforts of foodmakers to promote healthy behavior could make a few strides toward reversing the rising obesity trend, but it will take a more health-conscious nation to really turn it around.

    Undoubtably, foodmakers have a vested interest in promoting their products and shouldn't be held entirely responsible for the fact that too many Americans won't lay off the junk food. But the World Health Organization endorsed last month potential legislative measures that include tax hikes on sugar-rich food products aimed at children, stricter marketing rules and specific label codes for high-sodium and high-fat foods. Food manufacturers are fighting the proposed legislation because it fails to acknowledge that U.S. consumers must bear responsibility for their poor eating habits.

    Meanwhile, some people are already planning to hold foodmakers accountable. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, a Northeastern University Law School professor is teaching his students to develop strategies that could be used to bring obesity-related claims against food manufacturers. The legal strategies are based on those used to prosecute tobacco companies.

    Fortunately, lawsuits against foodmakers would be more difficult to win in court than those against tobacco. Little evidence exists to prove that pizza and cheeseburgers are truly addictive. And no one has ever claimed that frequent helpings of super-size fries aren't harmful to your health.

    Advertisements that encourage physical activity or that say a frosted cereal is part of a complete breakfast are only small steps in fighting obesity -- and in warding off related courtroom battles. Ultimately, Americans must assume responsibility for their health and diets. They can start by eating smarter and exercising regularly -- and just saying no to fat and sugar.

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