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The Washington Post reports that John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, is gung-ho on the notion of filing “obesity suits” that will hold various companies accountable for the nation’s widening girth and declining health. The Post reports:

Who will he sue now? For starters, schools with food contracts that provide sugary and fatty food, and fast-food companies in general. His argument: Many food companies have neglected to inform consumers about just how bad their products are, have made misleading health claims about them and, worst of all, have exerted enormous pressure on their most gullible audience -- children. Eventually, he predicts, the states could sue to recover the billions they spend on obesity-related diseases (diabetes, strokes), and then the companies could settle, presumably for oodles of money, like the tobacco companies did.

Banzhaf is not necessarily someone to be taken lightly. (For two reasons – one of which is that the Post describes him as being “roly-poly.” But that may be a different discussion.) Banzhaf has been a 35-year activist in the anti-tobacco movement, according to the paper, “arguing for nonsmoker's rights, helping eliminate cigarette advertising on television, helping establish nonsmoking sections in public places and smoking bans on planes, trains and buses.”

He already is serving as an unpaid consultant in two New York lawsuits brought against four fast food companies on behalf of overweight people who blame the chains for their condition.

"Everything's always called frivolous," Banzhaf told the Post, "but we just keep winning the damn things."
KC's View:
The fast food companies may be the easiest, most immediate targets, but we firmly believe that consumer packaged goods companies and food retailers in general eventually will become targets of these kinds of suits. Which means that they have to start preparing now through the right kind of consumer outreach programs that emphasize health, nutrition, and freedom of choice…and not wait until the first brief is filed in some courtroom somewhere.

If the first time that a food company talks to the media about nutritional issues is when it is defending itself, that company may already have lost the battle in the court of public opinion.

Interestingly, we got a press release from the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) yesterday concerning “Staff Wellness Day” that it sponsored for its own employees in which they were offered “real-life techniques for healthier living,” including:

    •Appropriate Serving Sizes – Dieticians were on hand to show correct portion sizes for everything from cereal and pasta to wine and snack foods.

    •Neuro-Muscular Coordination Tests – Fitness experts’ gauged upper and lower body strength and explained how employees could improve their coordination and balance.

    •Blood Pressure Screening – Qualified screeners tested the staff and offered advice on how to lower high blood pressure, which should be approximately 120/80 for a “normal reading.”

    •Body Mass Index (BMI) and Percent Body Fat Tests – Physical trainers worked with individual employees to explain what a healthy weight would be for their body type and what percent body fat is considered appropriate.

    •Massage Therapy – A masseuse offered employees therapeutic back massages and described common stress points throughout the body.

Now, we think this is a good thing for employers to offer employees. But perhaps retailers should be more actively presenting these kinds of options and informational tidbits to shoppers.

Which brings to mind MNB Mantra # 2: Be a resource for shoppers. Not just a source of product.