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million-pound challenge

JUNK DEAL

Their products cause heart disease, strokes, and diabetes-- adding billions to our health-care bill.

The tobacco industry? Nope, America's junk-food manufacturers. And some people think it's time for them to pay

By Michael Crowley

Who's to blame for Ron Wohl's waistline? Wohl is a 59-year-old management consultant from suburban Maryland who stands 6 feet tall and weighs nearly 300 pounds. That's a good 80 to 100 pounds too much. A lot of obese men like Wohl--and there are 20 million of them in America--fault themselves. They sense that they lack willpower or were cursed with a gene for gluttony.

But Wohl isn't so sure. Yes, he admits he ate criminal amounts of unhealthy food, but he points out he had plenty of accomplices. Just like every other mom in America, his mother told him to finish all the food on his plate (think of the starving children!). Unfortunately, over the years the plates he cleaned grew ever bigger as restaurants and stores increased portion sizes. No shock that Wohl's waist size followed. Then there were the TV commercials that led Wohl to a decades-long love affair with fast food (an affair that peaked when his brother-in-law opened a McDonald's franchise and gave Wohl all the free food he wanted). Alas, while McDonald's happy-go-lucky ads told Wohl he deserved a break today, they conveniently left out how all that McFood could damage his McHealth. Each time he swallowed a Big Mac, supersize fries, and a large Coke, for instance, Wohl was getting a staggering 1,510 calories and 63 grams of fat. That's more than half the calories--and nearly all the fat--you need in a single day. Not exactly a free lunch.

Wohl now has his diet under control. He's joined a weight-loss clinic, splits entrees with his wife, and watches calories in his salad dressings. But the damage has been done: His weight condition has left him with type 2 diabetes, drastically increasing his risk of heart disease, stroke, impotence, and premature death. And for this, he's not just mad at himself, he's mad at the companies that fed him all this unhealthy food--without a word about its side effects. "I succumbed to all these images," Wohl says ruefully. "It wasn't just me that got me this way."

Lately a growing number of academics, health professionals, politicians, and even lawyers have begun to agree with Wohl. Preaching diet and exercise is fine, they say, but it's not enough. America needs to recognize junk food as a public-health menace on a par with alcohol and tobacco. And that means taxing, regulating-- even suing--the nation's big food companies.

If you suddenly felt your blood pressure spike, you aren't alone. Opponents ridicule these people as "nannies," "bullies," and "tyrants," and a new Men's Health survey found that 69 percent of people believe obesity is a matter of individual responsibility. Still, few dispute the need to do something about America's weight problem. According to the surgeon general, 300,000 Americans die prematurely each year thanks to their weight, and obesity imposes an economic hit of more than $100 billion. That's more damage than is done by either smoking or drinking, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.

There would seem to be plenty of causes of our obesity boom. We live in a lazy culture of escalators, power windows, and garage- door openers. We're addicted to cable television, video games, and the Internet. But some academics say these factors alone aren't enough to explain why the number of obese adults has doubled in the past 20 years. They are convinced our food culture is to blame. America may idolize Britney's perfect abs, but we're awash with supersize portions, drive-thru windows, and ubiquitous advertising for Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

"In my mind, our environment is responsible for the epidemic of obesity," says Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., a Yale University psychology professor. "We're sitting idly by while the food companies are selling us massive portions of unhealthy food."

Brownell and his allies--a dozen or so academics and public- interest activists with whom he regularly confers--believe it's time to alter this environment. "A sense of militancy and outrage needs to develop, similar to the way people feel about the tobacco companies," he says. To change the culture, he and his colleagues talk of requiring nutrition information on restaurant menus, regulating food advertising, even imposing a "fat tax" on junk foods. Brownell won't go this far, but some rabid food reformers advocate filing multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits against giant junk-food companies. In the most extreme scenarios, candy bars would cost several dollars, strawberries would cost a few nickels, and McDonald's would cough up Phillip Morris-size legal settlements.

If you're an average Quarter Pounder eater, these ideas probably sound a little wacky. But they've made the food industry nervous enough to fight back. This spring, an industry-funded group ran a radio ad campaign ridiculing the "holier-than-thou Big Brother buzz- kills" who would police the American diet with taxes and regulation. Bruce Bartlett, who works for a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., thinks this is just the beginning. "The whole tobacco thing took 30 years from the time of the surgeon general's first warning about smoking, but that was the critical opening wedge," he says. "I think you're starting to see a very close parallel. I'm sure somewhere out there there's someone who eats McDonald's three times a day. And it seems to me that it's only a matter of time before the family of somebody who dies of obesity will sue."

Brownell is talking on his cell phone at a highway rest stop. He pulled over at the first place he could find to return my call and, inevitably, found himself standing in the shadow of an enormous roadside McDonald's. I ask him what he thinks when he sees those golden arches. "When I drive by a McDonald's, I feel sad," says Brownell, director of Yale University's center on eating and weight disorders. "I get especially sad because of the children who are being lured into this high-fat lifestyle. When you think about the words 'Happy Meal,' and the playgrounds and so on, how happy should it be?"

Trim and brown-haired, Brownell, 50, seems a highly empathetic man. He wants sweeping action to fight obesity, he says, because weight clinics simply don't reach enough people. "You can only help one at a time. And for every person you successfully treat, there are thousands more who are overweight."

Brownell is widely acknowledged as the father of the food-tax movement, kicking it off a decade ago when he published his first article suggesting tariffs on low-nutrient, high-calorie foods. He's been quoted frequently in the media--particularly after he asked, in a 1998 interview with the Boston Herald, "How different is Ronald McDonald from Joe Camel?"

The fundamental problem, as Brownell puts it, is that "healthy food costs more and is harder to get. The unhealthy food is everywhere, and it's cheap. And that should be reversed." It's tough to disagree. Coke machines and fast-food restaurants are ubiquitous- -but just try finding fresh fruit along the highway. Meanwhile, the low cost of junk food has led to an explosion in portion sizes. In the 1950s, Coca-Cola came in 6?-ounce bottles. Today a 20-ounce Coke is typical, and McDonald's will sell you a 42-ounce cup for about 2 bucks. (The difference between the 6?-ounce and 42-ounce servings, by the way, is nearly 500 calories--the equivalent of 10 buffalo wings.)

But it's not just that junk food is easier to find; it's also that it's marketed incessantly. The food industry spends $30 billion a year on advertising--with 70 percent of it pitching convenience foods, candy, soda, alcohol, and desserts. Only 2 percent promotes healthy stuff like vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans. True, the government makes some effort to educate us about nutrition, but it amounts to shouting in a hurricane. In 1999, McDonald's and Burger King together spent more than $1 billion on advertising; that same year the National Cancer Institute's "5-A-Day" campaign promoting fruits and vegetables had a budget of $1 million--one one- thousandth as much.

"People believe they're not influenced by outside forces. I find that utterly astounding," says Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University and author of the recent book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. "I see kids in the supermarket getting hysterical and embarrassing their parents, and I think, 'Advertising is designed to make that happen.' "

Nestle is not some dissident member of the famous chocolate- making family--her name rhymes with "wrestle"--but she does have a rebellious streak. Working in the surgeon general's office in the 1980s, she grew appalled at the influence big food-makers exerted over politicians and federal bureaucrats. In 1988 she departed for academia, and she's since become one of the food industry's toughest critics. Today, she doesn't just argue that the food industry is encouraging Americans to eat poorly; she says it aims to drive up profits by urging us to eat more--whether that much food is good for us or not.

Not that we're so hard to convince. Humans tend to enjoy eating the fatty, salty, and sugary foods that clog and fatten us up the most. And the scarcity of food in premodern times left us with the instinct to gorge ourselves whenever possible; it's only relatively recently that we've had the luxury of worrying about health effects measured over decades.

This challenge became clear when I met Nestle at a gourmet caf... on a sunny morning in downtown Washington, D.C., where she was visiting to promote her book. Nestle is an earnest woman with curly black hair, and she discusses nutrition with a grave air of motherly concern. But midway through our interview, her face brightened with excitement. The caf...'s owner, an old friend of hers, had brought over a gigantic cinnamon roll smothered in sugar and frosting. "Oooh!" Nestle exclaimed, tearing off a gooey chunk. "Best not to think about what's in this. It's hard to believe something this good can be so bad for you!" That's precisely the problem she faces.

Is a $3 Snickers bar the answer? In their utopia, the fat-taxers would raise taxes on junk food enough to drive down consumption (this has worked for cigarettes) while subsidizing the price of "good" foods enough to make them an irresistible bargain. Still, they're savvy enough to know the public isn't ready for big new taxes on popular foods. And they acknowledge it could be a technical nightmare to determine which foods are "good" and which are "bad." (Brownell says it might require a matrix that measures foods based on their nutrient-to-calorie ratio.)

That's why, for now, they're aiming smaller. They begin with regulation: Limit or ban junk-food ads aimed at kids; require chain restaurants to display nutrition information on their menus; boost the buying power of food stamps for nutritious foods. When they do talk about taxes, people like Nestle and Brownell tend to focus on small steps, such as a penny-a-can national soda tax. The tax wouldn't be enough to drive away consumers, Brownell argues. But the revenue--which he estimates at $1.5 billion a year--could fund healthy-eating advertising campaigns competing in prime time with Burger King, McDonald's, and other fast-food brands.

Will Americans actually pay attention to get-healthy commercials? Michael Jacobson thinks so. As the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the 58-year-old Jacobson is a kind of Ralph Nader for the food industry. In his more than 30 years running CSPI, Jacobson--a thin, reserved man with curly salt-and-pepper hair--has often made giants in the food industry seethe. His group's media-friendly nutrition reports have shamed many movie theaters into switching popcorn oils and forced McDonald's to stop frying foods in beef fat (though, ironically, the chain has switched to trans fats, which may be even worse).

Now Jacobson, too, advocates a junk-food tax. And he believes there's proof it can slim down America, provided the revenues are used to fund health campaigns. To make his case, he meets me in a CSPI conference room, where the shelves are lined with books and a sign advises "NO SMOKING UNDER PENALTY OF LAW." He turns on a TV and plays a videotape of two advertisements CSPI ran repeatedly in Wheeling, West Virginia, 3 years ago. The ads were designed, essentially, to discourage people from drinking high-fat milk. In one, a perky brunette in a supermarket warns that "one glass of whole milk has the artery-clogging fat of five strips of bacon. Just move your hand from here"--she shifts her hand from a carton of whole milk to a carton of low-fat milk--"to here!"

"We blasted these towns," Jacobson says. "The grocery stores were running out of low-fat milk." Indeed, CSPI's data shows that low- fat milk sales rose 50 percent during the test period. The lesson? "You can use education to change eating habits," Jacobson says.

But if people like Jacobson want results, perhaps they should consider subsidies after all. In a recent study from the University of Minnesota, researchers lowered prices of low-fat products like Nutri-Grain bars and raisins in several vending machines at high schools and workplaces. Sure enough, sales of these low-fat items went up. Cutting prices by 10 percent caused a jump of 9 percent in sales; cutting prices in half nearly doubled sales. Meanwhile, messages hyping the health benefits of the low-fat foods had a much smaller impact.

But with food subsidies such a distant goal, legislators are attempting to ban high-fat and high-calorie foods--at least on school campuses. In California, state senator Deborah Ortiz recently introduced a bill that would limit soft-drink sales to schoolkids. Meanwhile, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas have also begun trying to limit the sale of soda and junk food at schools. So it's no surprise that Nestle says she's "not out for banning McDonald's. I'm for banning McDonald's in schools." After all, nothing made people angrier at the tobacco companies than their marketing to kids.

If the tobacco parallel worries people in the food industry, the name John Banzhaf should terrify them. Banzhaf is a professor at George Washington University law school and an infamous character in the nation's capital--a gadfly whose law students are encouraged to dream up, and actually file, their own lawsuits. Some of the causes Banzhaf and his students have championed, like banning ladies' nights at Washington bars, may sound frivolous--but he gets results. Thirty years ago Banzhaf used ingenious legal tactics to have televised tobacco advertising banned, and in 1990 he won a prohibition against smoking on U.S. airline flights. "I don't think I can [talk about him] without gagging," a tobacco executive told me a few years ago.

The 61-year-old Banzhaf, a stout, broad-faced man whose license plate reads "SUE BAST" (short for "sue the bastards"), became interested in food last year, when a vegan student in his class was horrified to discover something about McDonald's french fries: Although the company had advertised its fries as cooked in "100 percent vegetable oil," they actually contained a small amount of beef extract--described in the company's nutrition information only as a "natural flavor." Banzhaf saw a possible false-advertising lawsuit and put his students to work detailing it. A Hindu lawyer in Seattle took the case. Initially, Banzhaf says, people laughed when he described the suit. But in March word leaked that McDonald's intended to settle the class-action lawsuit for $12.4 million. (The money will be spread mainly among vegetarian and religious groups.)

That McDonald's wouldn't take its chances in court and possibly set a legal precedent if it lost tells Banzhaf the company has come to fear what a jury might think of its advertising practices. (When I called McDonald's for comment, a woman told me she would "share this message with our media team"; I never heard back.)

Now Banzhaf is waiting to see what will happen to Big Daddy. That's the name of a Florida ice-cream brand whose supposed low calorie count made it a choice of Weight Watchers members around the state. Alas, scoops of Big Daddy ice cream turned out to be three times as fattening as its packaging promised. The company calls it a screwup, but a class-action lawsuit is proceeding. More recently, notes Banzhaf, a disgruntled dieter filed a $50 million class- action lawsuit against the makers of Pirate's Booty cheese puffs, when Good Housekeeping magazine found that the diet snack food had 240 percent more fat than advertised.

Banzhaf says these cases are setting precedents and clearing a path for future litigation. "It certainly shows that such food- fraud suits are viable," he says. And if it's possible to sue McDonald's for fibbing about its cooking processes, he asks, might someone like Ron Wohl argue that the company effectively lied to him by not making clear what was in its Big Macs?

He might, says Banzhaf. "Lawyers call it deception by omission when a seller fails to tell a purchaser something he would want to know about." Drugs with nasty side effects, after all, are required to disclose them in their advertising. Products sold in stores have to disclose fat content--why not chain fat-burgers advertised on TV? "Take an ad you see for a triple-bacon cheeseburger supersize meal," says Banzhaf. "If it's way over your recommended allowance of fat, that's a potential health and legal liability."

The law also says you can get in trouble for implying health benefits when there are none. One of the first major jury awards against a cigarette company, in 1991, hinged on the way ads for cigarettes played up their supposed health benefits with slogans like L&M's "Just What the Doctor Ordered." Is it so different when pro basketball stars and steel-bunned starlets pitch things like Pepsi and Burger King?

Banzhaf believes that the food industry could one day be sued for billions by states that incur high health-care costs for their portly citizens. But it won't be easy. Tobacco companies didn't just omit unpleasant facts--they actively lied and covered them up. Plus, linking heart disease to a diet, and then to a company like McDonald's, would require several long leaps. "The biggest problem is what lawyers call causation," Banzhaf says. "More than 90 percent of lung cancers are caused by smoking. But it's hard to tell what caused a heart attack. What percentage is obesity, versus other factors? And was McDonald's 4 percent, versus 2 percent for H agen- Dazs?"

Banzhaf calls lawsuits a "last resort" and says he prefers legislative approaches. But he insists that slim people shouldn't bear the health costs imposed by their hefty brethren. At the very least, he argues, health insurers should charge obese people higher premiums, just as they do smokers.

Still, with the sweet, greasy aroma of that $12 million in McDonald's money wafting around, Banzhaf does expect to see more lawsuits. "I think we may be turning the same kind of corner that we were in the 1970s with smoking," he says. Perhaps more to the point, he adds, "Never underestimate the tenacity of a lawyer working on a contingency fee."

The food industry responds to these critics with contempt and ridicule. Take the Center for Consumer Freedom's radio ads. "According to the latest study," a narrator says, "your brain is a nonreasoning blob of electrically charged gelatin that should be limited to simple tasks such as raking leaves, growing kale, and avoiding the likes of nachos, Ding Dongs, or powdered-sugar doughnuts."

Less-mocking voices argue there's just not enough proof that the anti-fat measures will work. "I don't think we have delved into these issues enough to say, 'Try snack taxes,' " says Lisa Katic, of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "I think these people are throwing spaghetti at the walls to see what sticks." Food-industry backers prefer to focus on exercise and diet as the keys to fighting obesity. Presumably concerned about their public image, industry groups have begun to fund cheery-sounding groups like Be Active America, a pro-exercise group that identifies itself as "an initiative of the Sugar Association, Inc."

The food industry's most fearsome body-slam, however, is the phrase Big Government. "I think consumers are tired of people telling them what they can't have and laying guilt trips on them for wanting good-tasting food," Katic says. "They think it's just insane. Consumers understand that it's their choice, and their personal responsibility to exercise and not eat too much." A cruder version of that message flamed out in an ABCNews.com chat room, where readers reacted to a recent fat-tax article. "WAKE UP FAT AMERICA . . ." wrote one author. "[Y]ou are fat because you are lazy slobs with no self-respect."

There's reason to think these intense counterattacks are working. Some of the food fighters seem to be moderating their rhetoric. And while progress will take a sustained public-relations campaign, like the one anti-tobacco forces mounted, some don't seem up to a nasty political fight.

As she sat in that Washington caf..., for instance, Marion Nestle told me she was encountering tremendous hostility on her book tour. "America's full of libertarians," she said with a weary sadness. "I hear just enormous anger at the way government is perceived as being involved in everyday choices." By this time Nestle had become so rattled by the abuse she was taking on talk radio that she had shouted at her publicist and was thinking of ending her tour.

Since that bad afternoon, however, she's pressing ahead. And Kelly Brownell says he's sensing that his ideas are catching on. He was recently invited to testify before the New York State Assembly and has been contacted by aides to U.S. Senator Chris Dodd. As for the abuse he finds when he plugs his name into an Internet search engine? "It's like Gandhi said. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Now people are fighting."

((sidebar))

FAT STANCE

Should junk-food lovers pay more?

23% of Americans favor levying a junk-food tax.

19% of Americans want fast-food advertisements banned.

25% of the population thinks obese people should be required to pay an additional surcharge for health insurance.

54% of the population believes that people who maintain a healthy weight should receive discounts on their health insurance.

69% of people believe overweight people are respon-sible for their condition.

Source: Men's Health nationwide phone survey of men and women

((sidebar))

JUNK FOOD JUNKIES

Which food is hardest to resist?

Men Women

Sweets like candy or cakes 23% 41%

Fast food 19% 7%

Dairy foods like ice cream 13% 16%

Snack foods like potato chips 13% 13%

Fried foods 13% 10%

Alcohol 8% 3%

Source: Men's Health nationwide phone survey of men and women

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