by Professor Paul Diller
After 30 years of dramatic increase,
the landscape has changed.
If the leveling off of obesity rates represents some modest success of legal and public policy interventions, it raises the question: what took us so long? One explanation is that, compared to some other public health problems, the causes of obesity are complex. Whereas the link between smoking and lung cancer is fairly direct, the link between any one behavior — eating fast food, drinking soda, living a sedentary lifestyle — and obesity is not so clear-cut.
In 1980, about 15 percent of the population was obese; today it is more than a third, or almost 36 percent. Among children the rate has tripled, from fewer than 7 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds in 1980 to more than 20 percent today; and from 5 percent of adolescents in 1980 to 18 percent today.
Indeed, efforts to use the torts system to change food industry behavior have failed utterly, in part because of this complicated causal chain. Moreover, both the legal and political systems often have viewed obesity as resulting from a failure of individual willpower, rather than as the result of the social and economic environment. In
obesity rates in the United States may finally be plateauing. Before we celebrate, let’s realize just how much
AND THE LAW The dramatically increased obesity rate will impact the nation’s health, economy and even national security for years to come. More instances of Type-2 diabetes among children, higher health care costs (which strain employers, Medicare and Medicaid), and fewer fit recruits for the military all are ways in which obesity will continue to affect our nation.
38 | Willamette Lawyer
response to lawsuits against McDonald’s, consider the proliferation of “cheeseburger bills” passed by 23 states (including Oregon), that immunize the food industry from any consumption-based claims of harm. The cheeseburger bills represent a second reason why it has taken our legal and political systems so long to react to the obesity epidemic: the enormous influence of the
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