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Battle to Reduce Nation's Waistline Overwhelms Political Landscape

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WASHINGTON - The politics of obesity is sizzling. And nothing less than the health of millions of Americans and billions of dollars are on the line.

"It has just exploded onto the issue agenda," said Rogan Kersh, a political scientist at Syracuse University, who studies public health issues.

Deirdre Byrne, an analyst tracking the issue at the National Conference of State Legislatures, added: "It is not emerging. It is already here."

The movement is being waged from the state house to Capitol Hill and from the restaurant counter to the government's most sophisticated health agencies.

Big economic players also are weighing in. Food-industry lobbyists are pitted against health care advocacy groups, while trial lawyers are looking for ways to apply legal strategies honed in fights against big tobacco to win lucrative settlements.

The battle to reduce the nation's waistline raises questions for ordinary Americans about personal choice and responsibility. And the outcome could change the way they eat, work and play.

One skirmish is under way between food producers and health advocates over the government's revision of the food pyramid due in 2005. The five-year update has billions of dollars at stake since it affects consumer food choices and determines the content of government food programs.

Other immediate issues include proposals to mandate nutrition labels on restaurant menus, improve school lunches and impose taxes on high-calorie, low-nutrition food.

Already, food companies - motivated by changing consumer sentiments and fears of class-action lawsuits - are cutting portion sizes and offering healthier menus. Schools are banishing snack foods and sodas, and policy-makers are looking for ways to pry Playstations from children and send them back to the playground.

"Because this issue has exploded onto the scene so quickly, we are feeling our way through to the best course of action," said Michael McGinnis, a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provides grants and advocacy on health care issues.

"We are in our fifth decade of working against tobacco," McGinnis added. "We will see a similar multi-decade struggle."

Even those who find fault with the tenor of the anti-obesity movement acknowledge it has unstoppable momentum.

"There will be more rather than less hype about this issue, which will drive the political debate to an even higher level of hysteria," said Richard Berman, who heads the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy organization funded by restaurants and food companies.

Americans have been putting on pounds for decades. But the latest movement to trim waistlines was launched in 2001 when Surgeon General Richard Satcher declared it a national health threat.

Experts said rising child obesity rates helped lift fat to the top of the public health agenda. And they have given trial lawyers a hook to drive the anti-obesity movement along the same tracks traveled by those who took on the big tobacco companies.

Kersh, the political scientist, said obesity is following a trend in which pubic health issues are first argued in court because lawmakers avoid issues that are divisive or have well-funded opposition, such as gun control, tobacco and asbestos.

"The lawsuits have helped to focus a lot of the attention," he said.

Congress has limited its response to proposing bills that would block the class-action lawsuits. One such bill was offered this year by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, home of Yum! Brands, owner of Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

John Banzhaf, a legal activist and law professor at George Washington University, said child obesity rates may provide a winning strategy for holding the food industry accountable for bulking up the nation on high-calorie helpings of burgers, pizza and tacos.

Banzhaf said public opposition to class-action lawsuits fades when children are portrayed as victims. "We will start winning cases," he said.

As a first-step towards suing, Banzhaf sent registered letters in June to five fast-food chains, asking them to post warnings that their foods might be addictive. The same month, more than 100 trial lawyers, many veterans of the tobacco cases, met in Boston with health activists and nutritionists to plot strategy.

The food industry appears to be moving to minimize its liability.

For instance, Kraft Foods plans to reduce portion sizes and eliminate school marketing. McDonald's and other fast-food outlets have added new salads.

Steven Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association, said he hopes Americans understand the complexity of obesity and will not turn restaurants into scapegoats. He said people need to take responsibility for their diet and exercise.

"We do strongly believe in moderation and balance in a diet," he said. "You do not have to eat everything that is put in front of you."

The sharp rhetoric of food-company defenders like Berman indicates they expect a long and contentious fight on both judicial and public opinion battlegrounds. Berman, a longtime political operative, used confrontational tactics on behalf of the food and beverage industry to take on anti-drunk driving and anti-tobacco groups.

Now he has focused on the obesity debate: "Everybody knows that when they go into a Burger King or McDonald's they are not eating tofu."

Restaurants, he said, sell tasty, inexpensive and convenient food demanded by consumers. "So, should the answer be that they sell food that is hard to get, expensive and tastes like crap?"

Berman's group maintains an equally in-your-face Web site ( Among the features, is a photograph showing a portly Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, with the headline: "Would you take weight loss advice from this man?"

Brownell said he has not seen the photo but assumes it shows him before losing a substantial amount of weight.

And he's not amused.

As the author of "Food Fight," a book critical of food and beverage makers, Brownell said he understands why the industry does not like him. But he criticizes the Consumer Freedom group for its personal attack.

"I am so frustrated because I have to spend so much time having to deal with the attacks this group has made," he said.

With key issues about individual choice and responsibility at play, social conservatives worry about the intrusive government role advocated by health policy experts and the possible emergence of a taxpayer financed bureaucracy to fight obesity.

"When government starts controlling the choices people make, then we have social engineering without any restraint," said Bob Levy, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. "What is next after food? Will they start telling us how many push-ups to do every day?"

Even so, policy-makers have important issues to sort out.

For instance, should Medicare designate obesity as a full-fledged disease? Such a decision would allow beneficiaries of the government's health plan for seniors to get reimbursed for obesity treatments.

Tommy Thompson, secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, has made obesity a priority. But he has limited his efforts to persuading Americans to eat better, get more exercise and pressure restaurant companies to voluntarily disclose more nutrition information.

"Big government is not going to solve this problem," said William Pierce, a spokesman for Thompson Even so, experts said policy-makers will be under increasing pressure to take action. In fact, 142 anti-obesity laws were introduced in state legislatures this year.

Six of those were introduced in the New York assembly by Felix Ortiz, a Brooklyn Democrat whose mother was overweight and developed diabetes and kidney disease before dying of a heart attack. He offered fellow legislators a variety of proposals, including a tax on fast foods, snacks and soft drinks.

"It is not just the politics of obesity. It is the politics of bringing corporate America to understand they should provide better service to the people of this country," he said.


(c) 2003, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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