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Is Fat the Next Tobacco?

For Big Food, the supersizing of America is becoming a big headache.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003
By Roger Parloff

On August 3, 2000, the parody newspaper The Onion ran a joke article under the headline Hershey's Ordered to Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion. The hypothesized class-action lawsuit said that Hershey "knowingly and willfully" marketed to children "rich, fatty candy bars containing chocolate and other ingredients of negligible nutritional value," while "spiking" them with "peanuts, crisped rice, and caramel to increase consumer appeal."

Some joke. Last summer New York City attorney Sam Hirsch filed a strikingly similar suit--against McDonald's--on behalf of a class of obese and overweight children. He alleged that the fast-food chain "negligently, recklessly, carelessly and/or intentionally" markets to children food products that are "high in fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol" while failing to warn of those ingredients' links to "obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, elevated cholesterol intake, related cancers," and other conditions.

News of the lawsuit drew hoots of derision. But food industry executives aren't laughing--or shouldn't be. No matter what happens with Hirsch's suit, he has tapped into something very big. (Editor's note: After this story went to press, a federal judge dismissed the suit, but granted permission to refile, which Hirsch says he will do.) Seasoned lawyers from both sides of past mass-tort disputes agree that the years ahead hold serious tobacco-like litigation challenges for the food industry--challenges that extend beyond fast foods to snack foods, soft drinks, packaged foods, and dietary supplements.

© Copyright 2003 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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