Junk food getting tobacco treatment


Sometimes, it takes a crisis to identify a problem.

But to take a problem and build it into a sweeping social movement that can change public policy, experts say, more than a crisis is needed. That's when a lawsuit will do just fine, too - as well as cold, hard science, well-known public figures, legislative action, widespread publicity and positive economic opportunities for key players in the battle.

And yesterday, when the nation's largest beverage manufacturers said they would stop selling nondiet sodas to most public schools, it was an important victory for the nascent movement against obesity - one that triggers memories of how anti-tobacco forces began winning one small battle after another in their war.

That's no coincidence - some of those same anti-tobacco crusaders are using the same tactics against companies that they say contribute to the nation's obesity epidemic.

Just ask John F. Banzhaf III, the man who is trying to do to junk food what he did to tobacco.

In this case, Banzhaf and others have helped turn obesity from an issue of personal responsibility to one of widespread concern about national public health.

"It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of dedicated people and it takes research," says Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University who was among the leaders in litigation against the tobacco industry. "But it's been proven again and again that legal action can be a very effective tool to get things rolling. Legal action has often played a major role in getting a movement started."

It has taken years for concerns about obesity to gain such momentum. But Kathryn Thomas, a senior communications officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., says the fact that the fight against fat increasingly involves children is also a huge factor in giving the movement greater energy.

"It's hard to ignore an alarming increase in childhood obesity," says Thomas, who sits on the foundation's Childhood Obesity Team. "There are alarming health consequences. It's a crisis that affects kids, and no one wants to see our children suffer."

But to take that attention and create a revolution requires more than dedicated volunteers, a few lawsuits or even a crisis. It takes a combination of those elements, experts say.

Such forces helped put seat belts in cars, pushed for AIDS awareness, banned certain dangerous pesticides and rallied for recycling. The strategy worked in the fight to take down Big Tobacco.

"I'm not a person who says litigation is absolutely necessary to move a public policy agenda," says Shiriki Kumanyika, director of the public health program at the University of Pennsylvania. "But the concept of drama helps. It helps to have strong grass-roots support, policy changes within a government body and research that supports your issue."

In the battle against tobacco, Banzhaf started by taking legal action to force all broadcast stations to provide free time for anti-smoking messages. After founding Action on Smoking and Health to serve as the legal arm of the anti-smoking community, Banzhaf helped drive cigarette commercials off the air, establish no-smoking sections on airplanes and other public places, and then achieve sweeping smoking bans.

Each time research uncovered information about the health effects of smoking on non-smokers, Banzhaf says, his group used it to file more lawsuits and place more pressure on legislators for policy changes. For example, when scientific research discovered that 30 minutes of exposure to smoking could increase the risk of a heart attack, Banzhaf's group used that information to fight for a ban on smoking in restaurants.

The same tactics are now being used in the fight against obesity.

When the first lawsuits against fast food companies were filed, people laughed, Kumanyika says. They pointed to personal responsibility. No one forces people to eat junk food.

"But they started talking about the issue of obesity," Kumanyika says. "Then as the issue got more publicity and attention, people began to see more and more children becoming overweight. That's when it went from an issue of personal responsibility to a bigger health issue we should all be concerned about."

Says Thomas, "People are paying attention now. This is a significant step, but we have to look toward what's next to keep it going."

Just as easily as a movement can start rolling, it can also stumble, expert say.

Look at gun control, which got widespread support in the 1980s, only to falter now. The gay rights movement made solid progress until recent years, successfully pushing for adoption rights, anti-discrimination laws and partner benefits. But the recent push for gay marriages met with a resounding backlash.

In all those cases, experts say, the issue was missing key elements. They didn't have enough public support, pushed too quickly for a major change, had no scientific research to defend the change or didn't work economically for any big player involved.

That's not the case for obesity.

A strong coalition of various advocacy and government groups has come together to fight the problem of expanding waistlines - from the American Heart Association, which worries about the effects of obesity on heart disease, to the insurance industry, which worries that obesity costs the nation about $120 billion a year for health care.

And economically speaking, there's money to be made in healthy food. A walk through any grocery store or restaurant will show that healthy food options have been added to meet a growing demand.


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