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Texas pushes for end to obesity lawsuits

31-May-2005

Texans could soon be barred from suing food manufacturers for obesity-related health problems after the state's so-called cheeseburger bill was approved by the Senate.

House Bill 107, to give the bill its proper name, was created to prevent speculative lawsuits against the food industry, which threaten to engulf the sector. The bill's author, Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, (R-Houston), called it "a preemptive strike on lawsuits against anyone up and down the food chain".

"You as an individual make your own choices, and it's not the restaurants' responsibility how you choose to eat," Senator John Carona, (R-Dallas), the bill's sponsor told the Houston Chronicle. "This just places responsibility where it belongs."

 

The action has certainly been welcomed by the food industry, which has found itself under increasing legal pressure to accept responsibility for the country's growing obesity problem, and could set off a chain reaction in other states. Eighteen states have already banned these types of lawsuits, and legislation is pending in 27 others.

 

Indeed for the food industry, the door to easy litigation cannot be closed too soon. The precedent for suing food manufacturers over health claims was set in 2002, when two New York teenage girls sued McDonald's, blaming the fast food chain for the girls' obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

 

McDonald's also faced a damaging court case last year after a US public interest group accused the fast food giant of falling short of promises to remove artery clogging trans fats used in the cooking process. BanTransFat.com, a Californian non-profit organisation, said it had filed a lawsuit against McDonald's for false advertising regarding a recent announcement that it would use a new cooking oil with 48 per cent less trans fat.

 

The same pressure group also brought a court case against Kraft's owner Nabisco because of the harm trans fats could cause to children. Research suggests that trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, causing the arteries to become more rigid and clogged. An increase in LDL cholesterol levels can lead to heart disease.

 

Although no such lawsuits have as yet been filed in Texas, lawmakers felt that it was only a matter of time.

 

Obesity is fast becoming the biggest health issue here. In Texas, 61 percent of adults and 35 percent of school-age children are considered overweight or obese, according to Texas health officials. And within the US as a whole, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity over the past 20 years. More than 64 percent of US adults are currently either overweight or obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

 

But there is increasing acceptance that the blame cannot be placed squarely at the door of the food industry.

 

"These food-related lawsuits are a prefect illustration of our society's growing tendency to play the blame game, pointing the finger at others for our misfortune," said Diane Davis, executive director of nonprofit organization East Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse. "We are becoming a society that wants to use lawsuits to solve our problems instead of taking personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions."

 

The cheeseburger bill will now go back to the House where, if approved, it will be sent to the governor.