Lawyers Devise 'Big Food' Takedown Saying Industry Should Pay for Soaring Obesity Costs
Lawyers have contacted state attorneys general in 16 states to pitch a radical idea: force the food industry to pay for out-of-control, obesity-related health care costs that have contributed to America's Medicaid spending woes.
It’s a move reminiscent of 1998's Big Tobacco takedown, which ended in a $246 billion settlement with 46 states, a ban on cigarette marketing to children and unprecedented regulation from the Food and Drug Administration, according to Politico.
Despite some skepticism, several nutrition and legal experts think a similar strategy could be applied against "big food"—especially as obesity-related diseases have lapped smoking as a major contributor to health care costs.
“I believe that this is the most promising strategy to lighten the economic burden of obesity on states and taxpayers and to negotiate broader public health policy objectives,” said Politico source Paul McDonald, a partner at Valorem Law Group in Chicago, who is leading the charge.
McDonald also wrote a Politico Pro opinion piece, published on Feb. 23, to further clarify the aim of his legal initiative that could help states close budget gaps as billions in Medicaid expenditures devour respective shares of tax revenue.
"No fair-minded, informed and honest observer would contend that food manufacturers bear absolutely zero responsibility for the problem of obesity. In fact, the food industry’s own health-related product modifications are an acknowledgment of some responsibility. I believe that whatever level of responsibility that some food manufacturers bear—supported by evidence, and taking into account personal responsibility—is their fair share of reimbursement owed to states obligated to treat obesity-related illnesses under Medicaid. That percentage may be on the lower end, e.g., 25 percent, or the higher end, e.g., 75 percent. It is not zero.
But while food manufacturers bear some responsibility, taxpayers are currently bearing 100 percent of the costs, paid for by higher state taxes, reduced state services or both. Tens of billions, and growing. I don’t believe that is sustainable, or fair."
Proposals, tailored to specific budget situations in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon and Pennsylvania were sent to respective attorneys-general by McDonald; however, no state law official has agreed to file a lawsuit against big food.
“Regulation through litigation is not an effective or appropriate mechanism for policymaking,” said Ginny Smith Clemenko, senior director of communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of he food industry’s most powerful lobbying groups, to Politico. “Proponents of bans, taxes and lawsuits as a means to curb obesity don’t truly understand the nature of the problem and lack the collaborative vision shared by first lady Michelle Obama and the vast majority of stakeholders who are working passionately to solve it.”
Over the last decade, food and beverage companies have introduced 20,000 healthier products, voluntarily removed full-calorie drinks from schools and adopted self-regulatory standards for marketing to kids, said Smith Clemenko.
McDonald’s law firm has teamed up with leading obesity and diabetes researchers, including Barry Popkin at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Robert Lustig at the University of California San Francisco and economist Frank Chaloupka at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to help deliver a winning legal strategy.
Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, is known for “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which went viral and attracted more than 4 million views. He thinks litigation should focus on diabetes since diseases related to obesity are most expensive.
From spaghetti sauce to Wheat Thins, about 75 percent of all the packaged foods in U.S. supermarkets contain added sugars.
Another concern is that costs will only compound over time due to the alarmingly high obesity rate of children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
- The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the U.S, who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.
- In 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
- Overweight and obesity are the result of “caloric imbalance”—too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed—and are affected by various genetic, behavioral and environmental factors.
McDonald closes his letter by writing any money gained from a potential lawsuit would go to the state covering the high Medicaid bills, not individuals affected by obesity who would be included under a consumer class-action lawsuit.
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With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.
They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.
When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
Where to Find the Best Information<p>Stukus says to start with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html" target="_blank">CDC</a> and <a href="https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus" target="_blank">NIH</a>. Then check with your local health officials, because COVID-19 guidelines may vary depending on where you live.</p><p>If you can't find information you need or have questions specifically related to you, call your primary care doctor.</p><p>"Your personal doctor should always be a resource for individual specific questions because they know best how to apply all the nuances retaining to your health, and how to incorporate all the other general [COVID-19] recommendations," Stukus said.</p><p><a href="https://www.eehealth.org/find-a-doctor/b/boyd-laura-b/" target="_blank">Dr. Laura Boyd</a>, primary care physician at Edward-Elmhurst Health Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, says her clinic receives a lot of calls about COVID-19.</p><p>"Most doctors' offices are receiving calls and answering questions, and doing phone or video visits to help clarify and/or order testing over the phone based on patients' symptoms. It is always best to call your doctor's office first instead of worrying about symptoms and waiting too long to seek treatment," she told Healthline.</p><p>If your primary care doctor has limited testing, she suggests looking on your state's public health website for available testing sites.</p><p>With a lot of unknowns related to this virus and disease, Boyd says many patients are feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a treatment.</p><p>"Unfortunately, there is no specific medication recommended for COVID for outpatient. There are a lot of ongoing studies with various drugs going on within the hospital setting. Patients should always contact their doctors about their specific symptoms as they can treat the symptoms that go along with COVID, but there is no cure," Boyd said.</p><p>While we wait for treatment and a vaccine, Hirsch, who treats patients hospitalized for COVID-19 complications on a daily basis, says everyone can do their part by washing hands, wearing a mask, and staying 6 feet apart.</p><p>"As an infectious disease doctor working in the hospital, I see the damage of the pandemic and the worst cases of what's happening. We are trying to get the best possible outcome and confronting this overwhelming biologic reality of this terrible epidemic the best we can," Hirsch said.</p><p>Everyone at home can help in the fight too, he adds.</p><p>"Follow information that is science- and evidence-based, and avoid that which is not," he said.</p>
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