Obesity lawsuits lessons learned from tobacco litigation

Obesity is a serious health issue in the United States, with costs likely to significantly exceed those resulting from tobacco-related illnesses. What are the prospects for using the strategies and tactics from tobacco litigation to drive the food industry to change its practices? How will the food industry respond to the lawsuits now being filed? How will the public health be protected?

In an article in the January 2006 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Jess Alderman, M.D., J.D., and Richard A. Daynard, Ph.D., J.D., both affiliated with the Northeastern University School of Law, review the history of tobacco litigation and suggest some ways that public health officials and consumer-protection authorities might push the food companies to provide better products.

The authors point out that the tobacco companies successfully fought litigation for decades until this strategy collapsed in the face of internal industry documents showing deceptive practices. They argue that litigation of individual claims will probably result in expensive defenses from the food industry, much like the tactics used in the early days of tobacco litigation. Writing in the article, Dr. Alderman and Dr. Daynard state, "It is likely that litigation will be as necessary to address the obesity problem as it was to address the dangers of tobacco. The best approach is to focus on public health lawsuits under consumer protection statutes that decrease the industry's incentive to use a scorched earth strategy and encourage the industry to improve the nutritional content of its products and to change its marketing practices."


Contact: Charlotte Seidman, Managing Editor

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