Watch CBSN Live

First Cigarettes, Now Burgers

Obesity is one of our nation's leading public health hazard according to the Surgeon General. Each year, it is responsible for some 300,000 deaths and financial cost of about $117 billion. But who is to blame for our bulging waistline?

The Early Show reports that John Banzhaf, one of the leading attorneys to wage war against tobacco firms, is now pondering lawsuits that would hold the fast food industry at least partially responsible for those deaths linked to food.

The food industry is already responding to these arguments. The Center for Consumer Freedom represents a coalition of national restaurants and recently ran a full-page ad warning the public about the "food police." The food industry argues argue that obesity is a matter of personal responsibility and not something to blame on the food service or food manufacturing industries.

The fact is that many Americans are overweight — 61 percent of adults, 13 percent of children and 14 percent of adolescents were obese in 1999. But, linking food to deaths through lawsuits will be more difficult than suits against tobacco.

While it may be possible to prove smoking caused a particular lung cancer, it may be difficult to determine how much of a role obesity played in a heart attack death. It is impossible to specify the responsibility of food chains and other sources of high-fat and high-calorie foods. Foods are not harmful in moderation, whereas cigarettes are.

"The argument that nicotine is addictive, and thus smokers are not fully responsible for their actions, has no counterpart with food," admitted Banzhaf.

However, Banzhaf's main goal is to get fast food companies to do a better job of disclosing nutritional information about the products they sell. Some restaurants do post the information, but Banzhaf says it's sporadic at best and they never post it in plain sight.

"One could go after the food companies asking them to disclose the details of the calories and fats of their foods," said Banzhaf. "Just like you see on products in the supermarket."

The food industry argues that fast food restaurants are regularly posting this information and must make it available on request. They say the posting of information is mandatory.

"If you walk into any fast food establishment you will find a [nutritional] chart on the wall," said CCF co-founder John Doyle.

Banzhaf wants the information shown in more prominent spots in the fast food restaurants. He wants calorie and fat percentage of foods on menu boards or on the wrappers, charges for larger-sized food to be proportionatly priced, and for restaurants to provide healthier choices

He knows his detractors argue that obesity is a matter of personal responsibility, but says how can people make responsible choices if we don't give them all the information they need to do that.

"Since the law recognizes the consumer protection statutes can be violated by not disclosing material facts as well as by outright lying," said Banzhaf. "The failure of major fast food chains to clearly and prominently disclose the fat and calorie content of many of their meals might also support a class action lawsuit."

The CCF believes that some would like to expand mandatory food information to restaurants in the causal dinning sectors — like the family oriented, sit-down establishments like "Applebees".

They argue against such posting in these kind of restaurants, because portion size is inconsistent. This, the CCF says, leads to inaccurate represention of the fat and calorie content of menu items and would be automatically put in the cross hairs of the public interest attorneys looking to file suits for false claims.

Genes To Blame?

Some scientist say there is genetic evidence to suggest that obesity may be linked to the genes and many people are predisposed to be heavy.

"Predisposition doesn't mean that you must be fat," responded Banzhaf. "It just means that it's more difficult to avoid being fat."

There are some scientistw who say when kids get hooked on fatty foods early in life, they grow millions of fat cells that always scream "feed me." When they are adults this "predisposes" them to crave fats.

Some believe suing fast food chains may never get off the ground, but the thought of such a ligation does have food chain restaurants' attention.