SPECIAL REPORT: Lies, Damn Lies, and … More Damn Lies

Professional ambulance chaser John Banzhaf is fond of making outrageous claims. They’re often false, but as we’ve said before, he has good reason to make them: His goal is to get every potential juror to think that there’s nothing at all strange about suing food companies because their customers eat too much.

Unfortunately, respectable news outlets are starting to report Banzhaf’s propaganda as fact. Take a recent story in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail, which made an unchallenged, reporting-as-fact assertion that four obesity lawsuits “have already succeeded.” This nasty bit of misleading “information” comes directly from Banzhaf.

It is true that food companies paid damages in two of the mentioned cases — but they were not obesity actions. One suit saw vegetarians objecting to beef flavoring in French fries, and the other was simply a case of mislabeling fat and calorie contents. At a May 2003 food policy conference in Washington, DC, Banzhaf confessed of the French fry case: “Now, notice: this is not, first of all, an obesity case.”

“The third win,” reports The Globe and Mail, as though rooting for the plaintiff’s bar, “was a suit in California that accused Kraft of putting undisclosed trans-fatty acids in its Oreo cookies. Within days, Kraft said it would take out the fats and the lawsuit was withdrawn.” The truth is that Kraft has long been working on reducing trans-fat in Oreos, but made no decision to remove them entirely.

And the lawyer who filed the suit says he dropped it for an entirely different reason than what The Globe and Mail stated. “It’s no longer necessary to continue the lawsuit,” the lawyer told reporters recently, “because at the time the lawsuit was filed nobody knew about trans fat. Now everybody knows.”

The Globe and Mail also adds to the “win” column New York City’s recent move to ban sodas, candy, and other snacks from school vending machines. But that decision was unrelated to any lawsuit. The legal action discussed in the Canadian paper was settled more than two years ago.

The newspaper also claims that “a report in the respected international journal New Scientist revealed that some fast foods can act on the brain in the same way as nicotine and heroin.” Sounds compelling, but New Scientist is not a peer-reviewed “journal” like JAMA. In fact, it’s a British pop-science magazine. Articles from the latest New Scientist include “What are flexible fridge magnets made from?” and “New software allows you to log on by laughing.”

This single article in New Scientist (which heavily quotes Banzhaf himself) is the only published account of the addiction theory — unless you count a book by PETA front-man Neal Barnard. Not even food nanny extraordinaire Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest buys it. He told New Scientist: “I think the burden is on advocates of the addiction argument to provide evidence.”

To support his view that obesity is an epidemic requiring (of course) immediate legal action, Banzhaf sometimes tosses around other bloated statistics. The Globe and Mail uncritically repeats one such number: “obesity had risen to become the second most serious public-health issue in the United States, killing 300,000 Americans every year.”

The respected New England Journal of Medicine noted in a 1998 commentary the problems with using this number: “The data linking overweight and death … are limited, fragmented and often ambiguous … [A]lthough some claim that every year 300,000 deaths in the United States are caused by obesity, that figure is by no means well established.” The 300,000 number, the journal found, is “derived from weak [and] incomplete data.”

Even the scientists who came up with the 300,000 figure noted that they assumed that extra weight was responsible for “all excess mortality in obese people.” In other words, an obese person who dies in a car crash is counted among the 300,000 per year who supposedly die because of their weight.

It’s unfortunate that John Banzhaf, in his quest to befuddle future juries, has managed to place his propaganda in reputable media outlets. The Center for Consumer Freedom, of course, will continue to play the role of truth-teller in the increasingly outlandish obesity wars.

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