Weak wills power fast-food lawsuits

August 23, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- At last, a lawsuit for the rest of us.

If you're one of those unfortunate Americans who's never been part of a class-action lawsuit against somebody with a lot of money, maybe this one is for you.

About a half-dozen class-action lawsuits have been filed by overweight people in various states against the fast-food industry.

Each claims that the industry lured the hefty plaintiffs into obesity by pushing food that was loaded with salt, sugar, starch, saturated fat, cholesterol and other tasty stuff that's not so good for you when consumed in mass quantities.

The plaintiffs could not help themselves, the lawsuits contend. The industry made them do themselves wrong.

People used to say "the devil made me do it" when they did something they knew they should avoid, but I guess you can't sue Satan.

What's with these folks? Old-fashioned common sense tells me that they don't need a lawyer. They need some willpower.

They need to try a physical fitness exercise that my father taught me: "Push yourself away from the table," he would say.

Dad lived to age 87. Not bad. He didn't smoke, either. For several decades, he rode a bicycle to work every day. Had he been born later, he might have taken the bus to work and sued the transportation company for his flabby hips.

Self-control and other forms of personal responsibility have fallen out of vogue in today's litigious age, as long as we have someone else to blame for our own bad habits.

Lawsuits against cigarette companies would open floodgates on frivolous lawsuits, the doomsayers warned, and some plaintiff lawyers are determined to prove them out. About half-a-dozen lawsuits have been filed against the fast-food industry in various states and more are in the planning stages.

One company, for example, is alleged to have given incorrect disclosure information on the fat and calorie content of its diet ice cream -- as if diet ice cream was not an oxymoron in itself, like "jumbo shrimp."

Some Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and vegetarians sued McDonald's for using animal fat in its french fries after allegedly saying it was vegetable oil. They settled out of court for $12 million, including $2.5 million in legal fees.

I don't necessarily fault these folks. If they were told one thing and sold another, as their lawsuit claims, they were misled, pure and simple. As McDonald's slogan says, they deserve a break today.

But, truth in advertising may not be enough to save you, Mr. or Ms. Food Seller. New research may make it easier for clever lawyers to portray fast food as a tobacco-like danger.

For example, the U.S. surgeon general has declared obesity to be rapidly surpassing tobacco as America's No. 1 killer. His sensible remedy: Eat less and exercise more. But, ah, that would require personal responsibility, wouldn't it?

Major fast-food chains already make nutrition information available to anybody who wants it. The bigger question is, who wants it?

McDonald's offers salads, for examples, but they don't fly out of their coolers nearly as briskly as the cheeseburgers fly off the grill. Whose fault is that? Are the consumers not voting with their appetites?

Memo to prospective jurors: Fight the impulse to kick a few dollars the way of sorrowful but, alas, weak-willed plaintiffs. The economical burgers and fries that you save may be your own.

And the fast-food industry may be asking for trouble -- not with what it sells, but with the way it sells it. The problem is contained in two words: "Super-size it."

That's the beckoning call of fast-food chains looking to get a competitive edge with the impression that they're giving you more for your money.

Yes, they're giving you more sugar, fat, etc.

You can hardly buy a small popcorn or soft drink at the local Cineplex without the kid behind the counter informing you, "For only 50 cents more, you can get the jumbo size."

And, what's up with the "Big Gulp" at the local convenience store? Drinks should be human scale, in my view. Yet, there is a market for such bucket-sized drinks, whether I approve or not.

The best solution is for people to make better choices, before some jury somewhere decides to make one for them.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing company newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com or by mail c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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