The new hefty-man lawsuit against four fast-food companies seems too silly to be true, but it's as serious as it was inevitable.
The strategy behind the lawsuit, filed by New York City attorney Samuel Hirsch, is familiar to anyone acquainted with the anti-tobacco movement. First you create a demon and a victim -Big Burger vs. Unhealthy, Overweight Person.
In this case, the demon includes McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC. The victim, not that it matters, is a 56-year-old maintenance supervisor named Caesar Barber, who claims that his obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol and two heart attacks were caused by the fast food he ate four times a week.
It's pretty hard to draw a straight cause-and-effect line between eating at those restaurants and a heart attack given the possible confounding factors (heredity, lack of exercise, other foods or substances consumed elsewhere), but who cares?
Having milked the tobacco industry dry, the health police need a new target. Food was bound to be next.
And the climate is right. Late last year, the U.S. Surgeon General said obesity soon would be America's No. 1 killer. The National Institutes of Health recently adjusted the "body mass index" by which they classify weight so that more people fall into the category of overweight and obese.
Under the new standard, Sammy Sosa and Arnold Schwarzenegger are obese and Brad Pitt and Michael Jordan are overweight, a small glitch in reality that might have caused the credibility meter to send out at least a little warning beep. The BMI does not distinguish between fat and muscle, but no matter. The public perception is that fat is nearly epidemic, and public perception -as every outcast smoker learned -is key.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines is charging large people double for taking up more than one seat. And recent corporate greed scandals have contributed to the growing distrust of large companies. Of
course McDonald's is out to get you.
All of these factors combine to create a litigant-friendly environment. The next step, honed to a fine art by the anti-tobacco brigade, is to massage public opinion to embrace the concept that we're all victims. Overweight people aren't responsible for overeating; they're victims of a vast, couch-potato conspiracy aimed at making them eat more than they really want to.
"I don't want to eat that Big Mac, but I just can't help myself!"
Smokers couldn't help smoking, remember? Likewise fast-food consumers who are addicted to unhealthy food, says Hirsch.
"You don't need nicotine or an illegal drug to create an addiction; you're creating a craving. I think we'll find that the fast-food industry has not been totally up front with consumers," he says.
Hirsch and client claim that the fast-food industry fails to note in its packaging and advertising the high fat content of some of their foods. Which is tantamount to standing up and saying, "I am a really stupid person who has no clue about the world in which I live."
It is simply not possible to live in this country and not know that fast-food restaurants serve fattening foods. The information is everywhere, very likely including the live, three-dimensional human being standing in line in front of you.
Likewise, it would seem to have been impossible not to know that cigarette smoking is bad for you. Let's see, you smoke a pack a day, you cough a lot, your lungs and throat are filled with mucus, you get frequent upper-respiratory infections and lose your breath climbing stairs. Must be the kohlrabi!
But it's not your fault. And there's money to be made.
The strategy outlined above has been tested and nearly guarantees success for the victim no matter how spurious his claims or how impossible to prove. Reasonable people once thought lawsuits against tobacco companies would never succeed, but they did.
Given the tobacco precedent, predatory lawyers see the future in the anti-junk food arena. As one veteran tobacco insider told me: "They'll keep throwing spaghetti against the wall until something sticks. A crazy judge somewhere somehow will let something go further than it should … you try enough courts and jurisdictions, someone will let it out of the box. It only takes one and they know it."
Which is to say, watch for state excise taxes to expand, and keep an eye on the blossoming budgets of the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture. And start weaning yourself from the exercise of choice. Like the greasy burgers you used to love, you'll crave freedom when it's gone.
But it's not your fault.