Professor sues McDonald’s

Overweight Americans might already blame fast food meals for their size, but after a GW professor finishes his work on an upcoming lawsuit, obese individuals may send their medical bills to McDonald’s.

John Banzhaf, a GW law professor, is currently working on a case on
behalf of Ashley Pelman and Jazlen Bradley, two overweight eight-year-old girls who “were lured into McDonald’s with playgrounds and tiny toys,” he said.

The complaint was filed in the New York State Supreme Court Aug. 22, but a trial date is yet to be set.

“To get the little toys, you have to buy the meal,” Banzhaf said.
Banzhaf contends McDonald’s birthday parties, which include games and prizes along with hamburgers and fries, are also to blame because the girls have to eat “greasy” food if they want to be accepted into a particular social ring.

Although he noted individuals should take some blame for their obesity because they choose the foods they eat, Banzhaf said eight-year-olds are incapable of making health-related decisions.

“It is hard to argue that these girls have personal responsibility,” he said. “If girls can’t understand the consequences of sex at 16, it is hard to say that girls of eight can understand the consequences of eating greasy food.”

Some experts said increasing obesity in children is linked to the popularity of fast food restaurants.

“Fast food restaurants are obviously trying to attract young kids with toys and easy meals,” child psychologist Beth Liederman said. “You can definitely place blame (for the children’s obesity) on the restaurants because of the colorful advertising.”

“I don’t think (the lawsuit) will decrease obesity, but it will increase awareness of fast food’s role,” said Jacqueline Johnson, coordinator of exercise research and services at GW.

Banzhaf said “warnings and clear and conspicuous labeling of fat and calorie content” might solve his problems with the fast food chain.

McDonald’s displays its nutrition facts in all restaurants and on its Web site, though federal law does not require them to, restaurant customer service representative Pito Martinez said.

But Banzhaf said the information on the Web site is difficult to read.

“They use four-point type,” he said.

He also noted the health risks associated with obesity.

There are nearly twice as many overweight children and almost three times as many overweight adolescents as there were in 1980, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2001 Report on overweight and obesity. Approximately 300,000 deaths a year in the United States are currently associated with overweight and obesity.

“If left unabated, overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking,” the report concluded.

Some experts think Banzhaf has no case.

Eating fast food is the choice of the customer, said John Doyle, co-founder of Consumer Freedom.

Consumer Freedom is an organization representing restaurant operators and individuals who want to preserve consumer rights to spend their money on foods they choose.

“The child’s lawsuit will be laughed out of court,” Doyle said.

He also said parents are to blame for the problem.

“How did these kids get to McDonald’s? Their parents drove them,” Doyle said.

Samuel Hirsch is the attorney for the case, in which Banzhaf is an adviser and researcher. Banzhaf said he will work in court “if needed,” but will not receive any profits unless he goes to court.

He said he uses his skills “to help society . because they serve public interest.”

Banzhaf’s current case is not his first interaction with McDonald’s.

Two years ago James Pizzirusso, a student in Banzhaf’s class, said McDonald’s claimed its french fries were vegetarian, but they were pre-cooked in beef fat.

In an official McDonald’s apology, the corporation admitted to “improperly” identifying its fries as vegetarian, according to McDonald’s Web site.

The class conducted legal research for the lawsuit and then passed it to a trial lawyer. Banzhaf said out of the $12.5 million won in the settlement, $10 million went to vegan, Muslim and Hindu organizations, and $2.5 million went to lawyer fees.

“This was a problem for people who are vegan, Hindu and Muslim,” Banzhaf said. “It is much like a person slipping pork into a kosher meal.”

-Julie Gordon contributed
to this report.

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