Australians are talking a lot lately about the problem of obesity. It is of course a genuine concern, given the health problems associated with it. And there are various components to the problem: fast food outlets pushing their wares; parents who are being less than responsible; kids who would rather sit in front of a TV or computer screen than get out and exercise; and so on.
Of course it is easy to single out the corporate world. Thus this past Sunday night the Super Size Me film was shown on Australian television. In the film McDonald’s is clearly portrayed as the villain. But things are not quite that simple.
Writing in the October 11, 2006 Townhall.com, John Stossel argues that it is simplistic to put all the blame on fast food outlets. In his article, “McDonald’s didn’t make them fat,” he begins with an American court case: “I have a question for federal Judge Robert Sweet: If your own children blamed McDonald’s for making them fat, would you buy it? I don’t think so. Yet the judge has given the green light to a lawsuit against McDonald’s by two teenaged girls who claim the popular fast-food chain tricked them into eating food that made them fat and sick.”
The judge had earlier dismissed the case. This is what he said then: “Where should the line be drawn between an individual’s own responsibility to take care of herself and society’s responsibility to ensure others shield her? The complaint fails to allege the McDonald’s products consumed by the plaintiffs were dangerous in any way other than that which was open and obvious to a reasonable consumer.”
Yet the judge said they could resubmit their case, with more evidence. They did, and “the judge ruled that the girls had identified to his satisfaction ‘40 deceptive ads’ and ‘sufficiently described’ the harm McDonald’s food allegedly caused them: ‘obesity, hypertension and elevated levels of LDL cholesterol’.”
Regardless of the outcome, the legal costs will be passed on to consumers, and choice will be further restricted, due to fear of future lawsuits. Says Stossel:
“Whatever happened to self-responsibility? Sure, McDonald’s commercials put the best spin on its products. All advertisers do that. Individuals should exercise caution, and parents should teach their kids a little skepticism. It’s not as if information about nutrition is hard to come by. Today we’re constantly harangued about cutting calories, reducing fat, and exercising more. McDonald’s competitors, such as Subway, provide lots of counter-information. You’d have to live in a cave not to know about this stuff.”
And does fast food have to make you fat? “Soso Whaley of New Hampshire once ate only at McDonald’s for a month. The result? Unlike the guy who did the “Super Size Me” documentary, Soso lost 10 pounds, and her cholesterol dropped 40 points. How? She didn’t pig out. Low-carb dieters have lost weight at McDonald’s by eating the burgers without the buns and skipping the fries.”
The problem is, we live in a litigious world, where everyone is claiming victim status, and no one wants to take responsibility for their choices: “All this goes to show that anyone whose health was harmed by eating at McDonald’s only has himself or herself to blame. To bloat himself up an individual has to choose to enter the restaurant on a regular basis, overeat an unbalanced diet, and fail to exercise. Should that person be able to pin his health problems on McDonald’s? If so, where does it stop? You can get fat eating Girl Scout cookies or dining at expensive restaurants. Should we sue someone whenever we don’t like the results of what we do?”
All this litigation and blaming of others leads in one direction: “The consequence will be higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. If that’s what our system of ‘justice’ gives us, then something is badly wrong. I want lower prices and more choices.”
Concludes Stossel, “I’m not saying people shouldn’t be able to sue a business when they have been harmed. But we should limit frivolous lawsuits the way the rest of the world does. The loser should have to pay the legal bills of the winner. It’s only fair. It costs a lot of money to defend against a lawsuit, even a frivolous one.”
The freedom of fast food outlets to continue their trade may not be something to go to the wall over, but it is part of the bigger problem of Western culture, where victimisation has reached worrying proportions. Indeed, we are super sizing lawyers’ wallets by our refusal to take responsibility for our actions. In the meantime, we are impoverishing the notions of morality and responsibility by looking to always blame others for our own shortcomings.