House votes to ban lawsuits over obesity

`Cheeseburger bill' seen unlikely to pass Senate

March 11, 2004|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The House voted yesterday to ban liability lawsuits that blame fast-food restaurants or other parts of the food industry for anyone's weight gain, obesity or related health condition.

The vote was 276-139. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where its chances for passage are considered slim.

"We need to get back to the old-fashioned principles of common sense and personal responsibility, and get away from this new culture where everybody plays the victim and blames other people for their problems," said Rep. Ric Keller, the Florida Republican who is chief sponsor of the measure.

Keller's bill, titled the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, is unofficially known as "the cheeseburger bill."

Backers said the bill would save the food industry, the nation's largest private employer, from being bankrupted by frivolous lawsuits. Opponents said the bill is based on Republican hostility toward trial lawyers, tramples on states' rights and is premature, since no such lawsuit has ever succeeded.

"This is a fake bill that addresses a fake problem," said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. "We have a real problem with obesity in this country, and this bill does nothing to deal with it."

The ban would apply to current and future state and federal lawsuits based on weight-related factors. Keller said it protects all restaurants, manufacturers, distributors, sellers or advertisers of food, unless they engage in fraud, allow food contamination or "knowingly and willfully" violate food-safety and consumer-protection laws and regulations.

The Senate killed last week a similar bill limiting lawsuits against gun makers and dealers.

"I'm counting on the Senate to have more sense than the House," commented John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor who was a lead litigator in anti-tobacco lawsuits, and has been trying to inspire a similar wave of anti-obesity lawsuits.

In the House debate yesterday, many members mentioned a Gallup Organization national survey last July showing that 89 percent of Americans "oppose the idea of holding fast-food companies legally responsible for the diet-related health problems of fast-food junkies."

"If you want action on this, go to the state legislatures. They are already acting on this," said North Carolina Rep. Melvin Watt, a Democrat and opponent of Keller's bill.

Louisiana passed a similar law last year. Similar bills are working their way through legislatures in at least 16 states, including Colorado, Florida and Georgia.

Yesterday's House vote and the wave of similar state bills represented a lobbying victory for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association over the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

At the Center for Science in the Public Interest, spokesman Ben Cohen said, "If Congress really believed in personal responsibility, it would help [consumers] make responsible choices by passing legislation that would require fast-food chains to post signs showing the calorie count for each item on their menu."

Two factors associated with obesity - poor diet and physical inactivity - were the underlying cause of 16.4 percent of the nation's preventable deaths in 2000, according to a government report in yesterday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

That combination of risk factors is growing so rapidly that it could soon pass tobacco (18.1 percent in 2000) as the leading cause of deaths, the study said.

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