By Ben Kelley
Washington Post, August 13, 2003; Page A27
The history of public health will record that lawsuits against tobacco companies played a leading role in the campaign against cigarettes and the diseases they cause. Does that mean that litigation against food companies will likewise be a major factor in reversing the alarming spread of obesity? Food companies are said to fear as much, but there are other options.
Parallels between cigarettes and dangerously fattening foods have understandably caught the media's attention. More and more, press coverage of the obesity epidemic has focused on real or imagined litigation threats. The comparisons with tobacco are unavoidable, yet the differences are striking and informative. Anyone seriously concerned about the public health problem of obesity -- especially childhood obesity -- should be aware of them.
A major difference is in the products themselves. Cigarette manufacturers make only one commodity, which by its nature is extremely hazardous to health. The only way to completely eliminate the hazard is to eliminate the commodity. But if nobody smoked, the makers of cigarettes would be out of business. From the opening rounds in the war against tobacco three decades ago, the companies acted on this awareness. Voluntarily removing the hazard meant ending cigarette production and sales, i.e., business suicide. The public health issue was not of concern to the companies. Sales, profitability and share prices were. So with some success, but at the price of swollen lobbying contributions, huge legal fees and an abysmal public image, the companies fought tooth and nail to fend off restrictive legislation, lawsuits and regulations.
No such fight-or-die choice faces the food industry. Where there are obesity-promoting characteristics to its products, these involve not just product content but marketing, packaging and labeling, often in combination. Nobody argues that a high-calorie, low-nutrition soft drink is like a cigarette; the soft drink becomes hazardous when it is marketed so aggressively -- through television commercials, school vending machines and other youth-targeting campaigns -- that children are habituated to its excessive consumption.
A better parallel to the hazards of obesity-promoting food industry practices is found in the history of auto safety regulation and litigation. Back in the 1960s the epidemic of motor vehicle crash injuries and the role of hazardous car designs in causing them became a national public health issue. The idea of curtailing car production as a means of remedying the problem was unthinkable; cars, like food and unlike cigarettes, are essential. The auto industry would better have served its interests by taking vigorous voluntary steps early on to eliminate hazardous designs, but instead the companies fought unyieldingly against regulation (and continue to fight aggressively against the right of injured people to sue them). Both the industry's bottom line and its reputation suffered as a result, as did the pace of auto hazard reduction. And lawsuits by injured people flourished.
All this suggests that for the food industry, faced as it clearly is with the threat of lawsuits and regulation, the option of effective and possibly drastic voluntary changes in obesity-encouraging practices and products is well worth pursuing. Carried out with vigor, commitment and transparency, such changes could blunt demands for legal action, improve the industry's reputation, and -- most important -- begin to address the obesity epidemic. The recent announcement by Kraft Foods of its "global initiative" to reduce obesity through changes in the corporation's practices is encouraging. A big question is whether Kraft will follow through unswervingly. A bigger question is whether other food companies whose products and practices encourage obesity will be wise enough to follow suit.