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"Public Health Advocacy Institute Conference: Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic,"

by Anthony Robbins Americans are beginning to comprehend the epidemic of overweight and obesity as the normal response of the population to exposures in the environment—both physical and social. (See our lead article in the May/June 2003 P&R.) And where there is an environmental problem, activist public health professionals engage the legal profession for help. The Public Health Advocacy Institute organized a two-day (June 21-22) conference at Northeastern University School of Law to discuss legal actions: legislation, regulation, and litigation against an epidemic that will shortly be killing more Americans each year than tobacco. The chosen goal was behavior change—corporate behavior in the food industry that now sells the American public almost twice as much food as we need to maintain a collectively safe weight.July/August 2003 issue of Poverty & Race

Americans are beginning to comprehend the epidemic of overweight and obesity as the normal response of the population to exposures in the environment—both physical and social. (See our lead article in the May/June 2003 P&R.) And where there is an environmental problem, activist public health professionals engage the legal profession for help. The Public Health Advocacy Institute organized a two-day (June 21-22) conference at Northeastern University School of Law to discuss legal actions: legislation, regulation, and litigation against an epidemic that will shortly be killing more Americans each year than tobacco. The chosen goal was behavior change—corporate behavior in the food industry that now sells the American public almost twice as much food as we need to maintain a collectively safe weight.

Shaken by recent stories about their responsibility for obesity, food companies sent their representatives, including their lawyers, to join the public health professionals, legal scholars, and trial lawyers who reviewed the epidemic and public health actions that might control it. On the first day, Marion Nestle, Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Univ. of California Press, 2002) skewered her opponents who choose to make the epidemic so complex that there can be no solution. She noted the traditional role of government—to promote an inexpensive food supply: “The US Government has never told anyone to eat less.” Yet selling fewer calories to the American population would control obesity.

Aviva Must, from Tufts Medical School, projected the epidemic growth, using slides not unlike time-lapse photography to show how a rising percentage of obese people spread from the middle and southern parts of our country, until Mississippi and West Virginia peaked last year at 20% obese (BMI — body mass index — over 30). Type 2 diabetes (formerly adult onset diabetes) is starting to be seen in teenagers!

Before the lawyers took the floor to address the nearly 100 attendees, pediatrician John Cook of Boston Medical Center voiced concern that any attack on big food companies might result in their withdrawing their charitable contributions to private food assistance programs. The conferees seemed unconvinced, but liked his other caution—that the traditional opponents of government food assistance programs might “spin” the prevalence of overweight to suggest there was no longer a need for WIC, food stamps, and school lunches.

Professor Jon Hansen of Harvard Law School presented a highly intellectual interlude, laying out his research on “dispositional” versus “situational” actions: a theory that may explain our culture’s overwhelming belief in the role of individual decisions, a belief that dominates our society and our law. The vituperative Center for Consumer Freedom, “a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices” (which blasted the conference on its website) has enshrined just such views to defend the industry. The Consumer Freedom attacks attracted several television camera crews to the conference and generated several misleading stories in the conservative media about trial lawyers assembling to plan litigious assaults to make themselves rich while victimizing the food industry. (Something also resulted in the withdrawal on Friday of one speaker and four other registered attendees from the Centers for Disease Control, on orders of the Administration.)

A required affidavit, prohibiting signers from working with industry, excluded food industry consultants, expert witnesses, representatives, and the press from the meeting room on Sunday and thinned attendance by half as the remaining participants, exhilarated from Saturday’s events, organized themselves to change how the food industry, aided by $36 billion in advertising, overfeeds Americans. The participants agreed to collaborate on science and data about eating and obesity; on strategy for legislation, regulation, and litigation; and on mobilizing the public to fight the epidemic while protecting food assistance for poor families.
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