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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Snack attack
Obesity is fast becoming a major health problem within the UK. Should the fast-food industry be held responsible? The Money Programme investigates.

Childhood obesity is soaring in the UK and parents have finally had enough. Food giants now face compensation claims in court after efforts to get the fast-food industry to rein in its advertising came to nothing.


Legal moves began in the US where people began pursuing claims against hamburger chains, alleging that their heart conditions had been caused by the fast-food restaurants' fat-laden burgers.

Attorney John Banzhaf is advising 56-year old Caesar Barber in a case that's gripping America. He explains: "Mr Barber says that because of his individual circumstances he ate out at fast-food restaurants four or five times a week and therefore they are a major cause of his health problems. Bear in mind that he need not sue everybody who should bear some responsibility - he need only show that they bore a significant responsibility along with himself."

Product liability lawsuits are commonplace in the US, though not all succeed. City authorities in Philadelphia tried to sue cigarette manufacturers five years ago for the cost of fighting fires caused by their discarded cigarettes - but that case has not yet reached an outcome.

Tobacco precedent

Lawsuits arising out of the health effects of cigarettes have succeeded, however, and they've set an enormous precedent. The tobacco industry has ended up paying out $250bn in compensation so far.

Whether this wave of litigation against fast-food companies succeeds, no one knows. But the industry is beginning to worry - especially as what happens in the US is likely to be followed in other countries around the world.

The US fast-food industry is worth $126bn a year and it has the advertising budget to match - in the UK the industry is worth less, but its advertising is no less significant for that.

Helen Garner, a parent, feels trampled by the corporate juggernaut. She was upset when she discovered the marketing men were taking over her children's school canteen. Advertising slogans, branded drinks cups and even parasols dotted the canteen. It's not conveying a healthy eating message and, says Helen, the advertising was sneaked in under the fence.

British experience

Lucy, a 14-year old from Middlesbrough, is typical of many youngsters who feel targeted by the advertising.

Lucy is overweight and her mum, Fiona, blames herself for letting her daughter eat too much - but she also blames the food suppliers and their relentless advertising: "Any description of some new fast food that's out, whether it's a cereal, a burger, anything that's new in tins, you know they really, really want it. The kids both ask 'please, please, please can we have it'. You're just half bullied into buying it whether it's good for them or not."

Caesar Barber's lawyer, John Banzhaf, took on and beat the tobacco companies - now he's using the same strategies against the fast-food industry.

"When kids start a habit of eating fatty food and sugary drinks it's not quite a technical medical addiction - as in nicotine - but it's not a free choice like someone going out age 25 and bungee jumping or jumping out of an aeroplane. It is like an addiction."

Germans blame Coke

In Germany too, a judge, Hans Josef Brinkmann, claims that his high consumption of Coca-Cola was partly responsible for the onset of his diabetes.

"I feel I have a justified claim, which they are simply refusing to address. But, more broadly, it's about the whole fast-food business and to what extent the manufacturer can deny responsibility for any liability connected with their product."

The fast-food industry is powerful, it comprises many multinational companies. But the forces ranged against them are gathering in strength and now represent not just kids and their parents but numerous consumer groups and now - crucially - lawyers too.

Battle looms

Judge Brinkmann's own hearing is due next month. And having seen what happened with tobacco, the fast-food giants are bracing themselves for a battle.

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 2nd October 2002.



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