Health advocates and lawyers are increasingly trying to blame food companies for the country's growing obesity problem, borrowing tactics that anti-smoking advocates have used successfully against tobacco companies and their addictive products.
While marketers and others may scoff at lawsuits like the one two New York teenagers filed against McDonald's, accusing it of failing to provide necessary information about health risks associated with its meals, some analysts and brand experts assert that food companies have ignored the developments at their peril.
"It is very possible that tighter advertising restrictions will eventually follow from the gathering pace of concern surrounding the spread of the obesity epidemic," a report from UBS Warburg, the investment bank, said last week . "There will probably be more lawsuits and pressure from consumer groups to change practices."
To head off any repercussions, many brand experts are urging the food industry to act before it is permanently tagged "Big Food" in the public eye. The suggested actions include posting more nutrition information more prominently, offering smaller portions, developing healthier menus and generally expressing more concern over obesity.
"They have a tremendous problem," said Alan Siegel, chairman at Siegelgale, a brand consulting company in New York.
The medical community has increasingly focused on obesity, Mr. Siegal said. "The natural link, in the media, has been to the high-profile fast-food companies, which are now being depicted as villains."
Although dieting fads and body worship have long been staples of pop culture, obesity as a health concern received new attention last December, when the surgeon general reported that obesity among children had doubled since 1980. Among teenagers, obesity has tripled.
In July, the first lawsuit citing fast-food companies for obesity problems was filed by Caesar Barber, a 56-year-old New Yorker with a history of heart attacks, diabetes and high blood pressure. The lawsuit accused McDonald's, with a history of heart attacks, diabetes and high blood pressure. The lawsuit accused McDonald's, the Burger King unit of Diageo, the KFC unit of Yum Brands and Wendy's International of deceptive marketing. The lawsuit has been delayed, but a second one was filed in August, this one on behalf of the parents of two teenage girls, who each weigh 200 pounds or more.
As in the tobacco wars, the fight is partly driven by lawyers like John F. Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University Law School and an experienced litigant against tobacco companies. He asserts that incomplete disclosure of health risks is unacceptable corporate behavior, and his position seems to be gaining ground more quickly than occurred in the battle against tobacco companies; he and his allies filed more than 700 tobacco lawsuits before one reached court, he said.
The parallels go only so far. Unlike tobacco, fast food and high-calorie snacks are not addictive. But any echoes of the battles over tobacco must be taken seriously, brand consultants said.
McDonald's asserted last month that the lawsuit against it should be dismissed. A spokesman for McDonald's, Walt Riker, said yesterday, "McDonald's is doing what we've done for decades: offer a menu of quality food and real variety to all of our customers, backed by detailed nutrition information about our products."
Even before the lawsuits, some food companies were moving to address obesity. McDonald's, for example, has pledged to cut the trans-fatty acids in its French fries by almost half by early 2003. PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, introduced low-fat Doritos this fall and plans to begin selling reduced-fat Cheetos, a product intended to address schools' concerns about selling fatty snacks to children, said Richard Detwiler, a spokesman for the company, which is based in Purchase, N.Y.
At the same time, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group representing restaurants and food companies, asserts that blaming food companies for obesity is a mistake.
John Doyle, a spokesman for the center in Washington, said obesity is being exploited and exaggerated by groups that want the government to become a nanny for its citizens. "The rest of this," he said, "is a bunch of special interests jumping on the bandwagon," like animal-rights and anticorporate groups.
Momentum, in the end, may matter as much as the merits.
Jason Streets, a research analyst at Warburg, said the lawsuit against McDonald's might be a long shot, but it symbolized changing attitudes toward food companies.
Mr. Siegel agreed, saying the lawsuit, once laughed at, is now being taken seriously. But for food companies, addressing the problems of obesity or public relations may not hinge on changing advertising strategies, he said. Companies must reposition their brands, he said, to represent healthier choices, smaller portions, or more transparent health information. And in doing so, the food companies may actually strengthen their businesses.
"They can't duck it," said Steve Lawrence, executive vice president at Straightline International in New York. He said one company, the Subway Restaurants' sandwich chain, has aggressively courted health-conscious consumers.
Consumers say they want healthier food, said Robert Passikoff, president at Brand Keys, a brand and consumer loyalty consulting company. But marketers cannot rely on what people say, or on successfully introducing health-consciousness to brands that never had it before, he said, noting the bumpy introduction of no-fat products, using Olestra, by Procter & Gamble.
"You're talking about brands where their equities and their images are fairly well entrenched," he said. "The best bets, especially for McDonald's, is to look to its heritage and adapt to the situation, rather than trying to be something that they're clearly not and never will be."
Nat Ives, The New York Times. December 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.