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After tobacco suits, lawyers target fast food

From Julie Vallese
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Caesar Barber weighs about 272 pounds, has survived two heart attacks, and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure -- ailments he blames on a diet heavy in fast food.

"For years, I ate fast food because it was efficient and cheap," he said. "I had no idea I could be damaging my health."

Barber, a 56-year-old New York maintenance worker, filed suit in July against McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The suit argues that the companies failed to provide clear and conspicuous disclosure of what is in their products -- and clear warnings about the risks of a diet heavy in fast food.

He is backed up by some of the same lawyers who spent years battling tobacco companies on behalf of sick smokers: Now they are arguing that the fast food industry is a similar risk to public health.


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"What we're trying to do is use some of the same legal tactics that have been so effective against the public health problem of smoking against the other public health problem of obesity," said George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf.

A Surgeon General's report issued in December said about 61 percent of Americans are overweight and that health problems from obesity claim about 300,000 lives a year.

Genetics, medical conditions and sedentary lifestyles are all considered factors the growing prevalence of obesity in the United States.

Medical experts say fatty food in moderation, a varied diet low in fat with a regular exercise regimen is the best way to achieve a healthy lifestyle.

The lawyers say fast food companies need to be held accountable for not providing clear and conspicuous disclosure of what is in their products, many of which are high in fat and sodium.

"A small number of them bear a large part of the responsibility," Banzhaf said. "They are vulnerable to legal action, and if we can change them, we can finally make a dent in the problem of obesity."

But critics say a lawsuit holding the fast food industry responsible won't help.

"The fact they are blaming restaurants for creating obesity in this society is absurd," National Restaurant Association President Steven Anderson said. "You're not going to end obesity in Americans by filing lawsuits against the restaurant industry."

It took more than a decade to win billions in the cases against tobacco. Banzhaf has noted that skeptics considered those cases unwinnable as well. But the restaurant industry says the lawyers are dreaming.

"I think it is a twisted and tortuous maze to get from tobacco to food," Anderson said.




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