19/12/2018 The Cheeseburger Bill: a failed attempt to regulate public health

The Cheeseburger Bill: a failed attempt to regulate public health

After coming across this exceptional article by a nutrition and environmental sustainability student, I started thinking about how the law should regulate public health.

US policymakers have tried to improve public health with a bill that, at first sight, appears to offer immunity to fast-food companies. The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (also known as the ‘Cheeseburger Bill’), which came to the public’s attention in 2005, aims to protect food and soft drink retailers from being sued by customers who claim that they have become obese. The bill does not offer protection in cases where the actual quality of food is poor or where food has been mishandled or deceptively sold. Most importantly, it does not make it harder for customers to win such lawsuits; rather, it makes it harder for them to even commence legal proceedings. In a nutshell, the bill’s purpose is to eliminate lawsuits brought by consumers who have become obese through certain dietary choices.

The motive behind the bill is somewhat dubious due to the heavy donations that its proposer received from fast-food companies during his personal campaign. The bill has not passed into law, but it does raise an interesting debate about who should be held accountable for bad dietary choices by the public at large.

The argument for the bill is that it aims to reduce obesity rates by shifting the responsibility of healthy dietary choices on to consumers. Knowing that they cannot sue food sellers for obesity-related health conditions, consumers would theoretically make healthier dietary choices. This would result in:

  • lower obesity rates, as healthier foods would be preferred; and
  • less frivolous and costly lawsuits, which are currently overwhelmingly won by food companies because, rightly so, it is extremely difficult to point to a single and clear cause of obesity.

However, the underlying premise of this argument is that consumers’ dietary choices are entirely free and unfettered by any other factor. This is likely to be far from reality in light of the aggressive marketing tactics used by food companies, such as ads targeting children. In addition, there is a strong connection between economic inequality and fast-food consumption: people from lower incomes are more likely to opt for cheaper, unhealthier foods. It seems that consumers’ freedom to tailor their diet is restricted by wealth, knowledge or even marketing tactics of the food companies that the bill aims to protect.

The first consequence envisaged by the supporters of the bill might not happen at all: even if consumers know that they cannot sue food companies, a large proportion is likely to stick to the same eating habits simply because they are limited by poor knowledge or poverty. With regard to the second consequence, although it is a key responsibility of the government to reduce costs, this should not come at the expense of eliminating the conversation from the public debate. Lawsuits serve an essential educational function by providing an arena in which arguments are put forward and rights are weighted against each other. Further, they serve an investigative function: keeping food companies under scrutiny all the time is a shield against unfair practices that could emerge had they had immunity.

Although the debate has been less intense here in the UK, the government admitted that it spends more each year on the treatment of obesity and diabetes than on the police, fire service and judicial system combined. US policymakers have proposed a model that is not only implausible, but also potentially damaging for public health. The question remains as to how to empower consumers to lead a healthier life in the face of so many eye-catching, mouth-watering fast foods, drinks and sweets.

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