Is Big Food the New Big Tobacco?

Way back in 1994 -- while parents were laughing at Forrest Gump's "box of chocolates" metaphor, while their kids were headed to McDonald's to cheekily order a "Royale with Cheese" -- something big was going down in the world of Big Tobacco. The Attorney General of Mississippi, Mike Moore, filed a lawsuit against 13 tobacco companies, arguing it was their responsibility to reimburse the state for the costs they've had to pay to deal with smoking-related health issues. Other states soon joined the suit. And when the smoke cleared, Big Tobacco was forced to pony up $246 billion in settlement money, was banned from marketing to children, and began being regulated by the FDA. It was a big deal.

If you're in the mood for some Congressional corporate grilling porn -- and, really, who isn't always in the mood for that? -- here's a 10-minute snippet of the six hours that California Rep. Henry Waxman spent giving Big Tobacco execs the business. In the clip, Waxman takes umbrage at the comparison of cigarettes to Twinkies, which Big Tobacco's head honchos believed were two pieces of the same junk food pie. "The difference between cigarettes and Twinkies," countered Waxman, "is death."

But, is that even a legitimate point of differentiation anymore?

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A group of lawyers in 16 states are putting the finishing touches on a lawsuit that, similar to the 1994 Big Tobacco lawsuit, will be going after Big Food for their role in harming the health of America.

The concept is simple: If Big Food's truly responsible for our nation's obesity epidemic, due to their part in providing low-cost, highly-addictive substances to the American public -- which, at this point, is a pretty well proven fact -- then shouldn't they be forced to pay for health problems associated with the epidemic? Says Paul McDonald, one of the lawyers leading the project:

It's not a matter of casting the food industry as villains. There's a cost of what they're doing that they're not internalizing, and the taxpayers are paying for it.

The aforementioned cost being medical procedures needed to save the lives of those negatively affected by Big Food's products.

The whole debate is in the same arena as the one that took place recently over nationalized healthcare, which pointed towards the uninsured as being burdens on taxpayers. The uninsured were still getting hospital treatments -- they weren't being turned away -- and they weren't paying for them. But, someone had to, and that someone was the taxpayer.

In the same respect, someone has to pay for the various costs that go into treating people with something like, say, coronary heart disease (one of the many problems associated with obesity). The cost of treating that condition alone costs the country roughly $109 billion dollars a year. Not all of that's covered by insurance companies, meaning states have to pay the cost. Meaning, in reality, you're paying the costs.

(Big Food, it should be noted, doesn't agree with this proposed lawsuit one bit, with one of their top communications directors claiming "[p]roponents of bans, taxes and lawsuits as a means to curb obesity don't truly understand the nature of the problem." To which the obvious response is: What's the solution, then?)

Whether or not this proposed lawsuit is going to make a difference is a question still up for grabs, and one probably not worth discussing until the "proposed" qualifier is removed from the description. Until it begins its long and surely arduous pathway through our legal system -- keep in mind, it has yet to be approved by a single state -- there's no telling how the battle's going to go. And even if everything does break just right, and the lawsuit grabs a chunk of settlement money from Big Food, is that really going to make them change their ways? More likely, they'll just pay the fines and continue on with business as usual. (Big Tobacco companies are still very profitable, after all.)

But the fact that we're even discussing the possibility of such a strategy is a nice start. If, in twenty years time, it's as tough to smoke a cigarette as it is to eat a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, is that really all that bad of a thing?

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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