So, the misguided folks eager to cast the purveyors of fast food and snack food as the moral and legal equivalents of Big Tobacco seem to be gathering steam. Or is it just hot air?
Lawsuits have been filed accusing McDonald's of making people fat, and The Times had a front-page story early this month about a closed-door meeting among "veteran attorneys of the tobacco wars" eager to teach other lawyers, health activists and nutritionists "Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic."
Look, I'm on record -- in this very space -- ripping McDonald's for the appalling taste of its burgers, for its utilitarian, food-as-fuel approach to eating and for its encouragement of both gustatory timidity and, yes, rampant gluttony. But it's one thing to criticize McDonald's -- and the rest of fast-food America -- for super-sizing everything and for stuffing their products with more fat and sugar than a Southern politician's speech; it's quite another to say they should be legally responsible for the bulging waistlines of people foolish enough to consume all those giant portions and empty calories.
I agreed wholeheartedly with the federal judge who ruled in a McDonald's suit early this year that it is not the court's job to protect people from "their own excesses."
As much as I hate to come to the defense of Big Macs, Oreos and Pringles, common sense and fair play leave me no choice. No one is forced to eat at McDonald's or Burger King or to fill his or her shopping basket with Coca-Cola, Haagen-Dazs and Cocoa Puffs.
People do it because they're lazy or because they're in a hurry or because they're creatures of habit or because their kids like that stuff -- and after arguing with them about cleaning up their room and doing their homework, they just don't want to fight with them anymore.
But don't ask lawyers to do your parenting for you.
Yes, I know. The apologists for Big Tobacco also argue that no one is forced to use their products. But nicotine is addictive, and tobacco executives long denied that while simultaneously manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes to ensure their customers would be hooked.
Many millions of people like Big Macs and Pop Tarts and their fatty, sugary ilk. But I've seen no conclusive scientific evidence that any of these foods -- however foul and fattening -- are addictive. I've never heard of anyone suffering clinical withdrawal symptoms after being deprived of Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos or any other snack food or fast food.
Look, I know we have what amounts to a fatness epidemic in this country; 65% of us are either overweight or obese, including more than 25% of Americans under 19, a figure that has doubled in the last 30 years. I'm all for labeling foods accurately so people will know what they're buying and eating. The announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration two weeks ago that packaged foods will have to list their trans fat contents by January 2006 is a good step in that direction (albeit too little, too late).
I was even more pleased to see Kraft Foods -- the $30-billion giant whose products include cream cheese, peanut butter, Velveeta, Oreo cookies and Oscar Mayer hot dogs -- announce plans to reduce fats, sugar and calories across its product line. Kraft also said it would cease its marketing efforts in schools and reexamine its portion sizes.
Were I a betting man, I'd wager that concerns about possible lawsuits, not a suddenly awakened social conscience, dictated these moves by Kraft -- which is, after all, owned by Philip Morris, a company that knows all too well the power of the class action suit.
But I don't know that, ultimately, we can count on corporate fear or the FDA to protect us from the Cookie Monster. And we sure don't need lawyers to do the job.
Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" may have been a hopelessly simple-minded strategy in the drug wars, but it's not a bad idea when confronted by a double bacon cheeseburger, a three-scoop hot fudge sundae with whipped cream or a bag of potato chips the size of a sofa.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com.