Who Else Could We Sue for Obesity?

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Media reports lately have been full of news about the latest attempts by trial lawyers to find someone to sue for the increasing obesity of American kids. Not content with blaming McDonald's for fattening our youth, some trial lawyers, aided and abetted by the activist groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), are now targeting companies that sell soft drinks in vending machines in schools.

According to reports in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and various other media outlets, one such suit will focus on what they call "unhealthy" beverages, ignoring the fact that when it comes to obesity, it's the calories, not the other nutrients in a food or drink that counts, as we've said many times on this site -- such as these pieces:




The problem with this approach is that it focuses too narrowly on one aspect of kids' environment -- just the possibility that they can buy soft drinks or other sweetened beverages in school. But the real issue is much more pervasive than that. Food and drink are ubiquitous these days -- in large cities there's a Starbuck's on nearly every block and other types of food venues -- from groceries to convenience stores -- just about as frequently. Not only can students nibble on foods at malls and from street vendors, a new report suggests that in at least some middle schools, students can eat or drink in classrooms and in the halls on the way to or from class(1). To those of us who weren't even allowed to chew gum in class, that seems like a real behavioral paradigm shift!

Obesity experts have been saying for years that environmental changes over the past few decades are responsible for the increasing adiposity of Americans -- adults and kids. These changes have been much more pervasive than simply the increased availability of beverages in schools.

Many schools no longer require physical education, and few Americans -- of any age -- get the recommended amount of physical activity on a regular basis.

In a nutshell, the increased availability of foods and the decreased necessity of physical labor and activity are factors that must be recognized and dealt with in a broader context than just school vending machines. Lawsuits that focus on one type of food or beverage are misleading and promote a biased view of the causes of obesity. They help educate no one and are highly unlikely to combat the increasing prevalence of obesity and obesity-linked diseases.

1. Martha Y. Kubik, PhD, RN; Leslie A. Lytle, PhD, RD; Mary Story, PhD. Food Practices and Using Food Incentives in Middle Schools Associated with Overweight Students. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005;159:1111-1114.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).