In 1998 the federal government went after the tobacco industry. Their efforts culminated in a $246 billion settlement, a ban on youth-oriented tobacco marketing practices and sweeping regulations from the Food and Drug Administration. While the effort is still in its early stages, lawyers in 16 states are now turning their attention to the food industry and hoping for similar results.
Appeals are being made to attorneys general to make “Big Food” culpable in the ever-worsening epidemic of obesity and the health care costs that come with it. While this has been met with its fair share of resistance, those that favor heavier regulations on the food industry say they have nutrition experts on their side — just like they did when it came to Big Tobacco.
So What’s the Plan?
Paul McDonald (the irony of his name is not lost on us) has hailed the so-called “big food movement” as a “promising strategy” that could help to lessen the economic impact of widespread obesity on taxpayers. McDonald’s legal firm, Valorem Law Group, is heading these efforts. He and his supporters believe that the food industry has been complicit in the ever-worsening health of American citizens, including factors such as obesity and diabetes, and that the time has come to hold them responsible for the damage.
One of the linchpins of Valorem’s strategy has been to send proposals to attorneys general across the country, outlining how a concerted effort to sue the food industry could help states to shore up their budget gaps. Medicaid expenses have become an increasingly substantial part of state budgets, swallowing up more and more tax revenue that could be better spent elsewhere. Of course, that can only happen if the public is healthier. McDonald will tell you it all starts with making the food industry liable for their lack of healthy choices.
What Does the Opposition Have to Say About It?
As you might imagine, the food industry has been, to put it gently, reluctant to take this attack lying down. Ginny Smith Clemenko, a representative from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, maintains that “regulation through litigation is not an effective or appropriate mechanism for policy making.”
Perhaps we should ask them nicely, instead?
The crux of Clemenko’s argument is that lawsuits, higher taxes and outright bans don’t tackle the heart of the problem and lack a certain “passion” that others – she cites first lady Michelle Obama as an example – have brought to bear on this shared societal problem.
The Battle Started in America’s Schools
She does have a point. Over the last several years, food and beverage manufacturers have introduced healthier choices by the hundreds and thousands, and it hasn’t been because of governmental crackdowns or lawsuits. It’s been a product of the changing attitudes and increased awareness of the American people, and the success of grassroots movements seeking change.
Take, for example, the renewed interest in school lunches provided by America’s public grade schools. Thanks to better publicity that has shown the public the true culinary abominations that pass for healthful student meals, more and more schools have chosen to add better choices to their menus, including organic produce, more sensible portions and whole grains in favor of empty carbs.
What’s the Endgame?
McDonald’s law firm, and those who support them, have teamed with nutritionists, obesity researchers and diabetes experts to dial in on the biggest food-related problems in America. They have made ever-worsening health problems like diabetes the backbone of their argument, indicating that any litigation needs to target specific health concerns in order to gain ground.
Whether or not this litigation could survive in a court, however, remains to be seen. The parallels with the takedown of the tobacco industry don’t all hold up. While it’s well known by now that tobacco companies either obfuscated the truth or outright lied about the health risks of smoking, the food industry has proven either unwilling or unable to hide the truth from the public. In other words, nobody is denying that certain foods they offer contribute to obesity and diabetes.
If these efforts fail, it’s likely that renewed efforts in the future will focus instead on the addictive nature of the products offered by Big Food, along with their rather less-than-truthful statements on packaging such as “flavored naturally” and “all natural.”
A Better Future
The case has been gaining ground recently among the attorneys general of several states, but it’s still going to be a tough battle. Similar cases were pitched in the early ‘90s but failed to gain much traction because they were deemed too “controversial.” As scientific inquiry continues to provide evidence in favor of stronger regulation, however, McDonald is hopeful that his renewed efforts will be met with great enthusiasm now that the general public is better informed.