"Super Size Me" is an attempt to demonize McDonald’s as an enabler of obesity, which has the trial bar seeing green. Litigation Won’t Make America Thinner

In the hours after midnight, cable TV is saturated with ads for diet pills promising big and easy weight loss and ads for law firms promising big and easy legal judgments and settlements.

Until recently, there was no direct connection between the two groups trolling for customers, but leave it to America’s trial lawyers to find one.

Welcome to the brave new world of obesity litigation.

In terms of questionable lawsuits and potential big paydays for lawyers, obesity litigation is shaping up as the successor to tobacco. Lawsuits against that industry netted a cool $250 billion in legal fees over and above what the tobacco companies, or rather, their consumers, paid in negotiated settlements with individual states.

The obesity bar is licking its chops over the prospects of creating a similar bonanza by finding clients to sue fast food companies, like McDonald’s, with deep pockets and a huge stake in protecting their wholesome public image. But to lay the groundwork for successful lawsuits, the lawyers have to convince Americans to dismiss the idea that they have any personal responsibility for controlling their weight through sensible eating and exercise.

If we are carrying around some extra cellulite — and millions of us are — it’s not our fault, the lawyers say. We’re the victims of the pernicious fast food industry, just as surely as if we were abducted at gun-point and force fed Big Macs and super-sized fries.

This bizarre reasoning got a Hollywood boost this month from the release of Morgan Spurlock’s propaganda film "Super Size Me." Spurlock records his adventures as he literally stuffs himself full of McDonald’s food three times daily, gobbling up approximately twice the calories the typical Mickey D customer consumes at each sitting. After a solid month of binge eating — during which Spurlock scrupulously avoided exercise — we get the shocking news that he put on 24 pounds and raised his cholesterol level.

The point of this occasionally funny, sometimes vulgar movie, of course, is not that people are responsible for the consequences of their own behavior. No. "Super Size Me" is an attempt to demonize McDonald’s as an enabler of obesity, which has the trial bar seeing green.

For the sake of art, no doubt, Spurlock’s film ignores the fact that he could have ordered diet soda, fresh green salads and other healthy fare that have been added to the menu at McDonald’s and every other fast-food chain. Those choices are there because the public wants them and the restaurant industry is eagerly responding. That’s the way free enterprise works.

And to state the obvious, Spurlock could have staved off weight gain if he had only eaten traditional McDonald’s fare at the rate of 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day instead of the 5,000 to 5,500 calories he elected to pack in each 24-hour period.

Then again, details like that bore the audience. Apparently he felt theater patrons would be more entertained by the rectal examination and vomiting scenes that made the final cut.

In fairness to Spurlock, the man has no experience as a nutritionist or as a social crusader. He’s in the entertainment business, and his recent credits include an MTV program called "I Bet You Will." On that one, Spurlock dared guests to do revolting things on camera. Some of the challenges involved eating, like the lady he paid $100 to eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach or the man who was awarded $25 for eating a clam out of a stranger’s armpit.

Maybe those antics inspired him to think he could earn a lot more than he paid his guests by eating himself sick on camera for a month and dressing it up as a social statement. Meanwhile, the rest of us, lawyers included, can do something about the very real health problem of obesity by taking responsibility for our own actions, and understanding that we really are what and how much we eat.

June 3, 2004
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