The GOP-controlled House on Wednesday banned lawsuits that blame the food industry for people's expanding waistlines and health woes, saying such cases could bankrupt fast-food chains and restaurants.
The House voted 276-139 to prevent suits that contend food companies and their supersize offerings are responsible for Americans' putting on the pounds and lurching toward obesity.
House Republicans have in recent years approved similar bills barring suits against the gun industry for gun crimes and against businesses for asbestos-related health problems. Not one measure has passed the closely divided Senate.
"We as Americans need to realize that suing your way to better health is not the answer," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Trial lawyers need to stop encouraging consumers to blame others for the consequences of their actions just so they can profit from frivolous lawsuits against restaurants."
The White House endorsed the bill, which the Senate is not expected to pass this year. Democrats said the industry did not need the federal protection.
The debate came a day after the government said overeating could soon replace smoking as the No. 1 preventable cause of death. Two out of three adults and 9 million children are overweight or obese, the report said.
House Republicans said fast-food franchises and mom-and-pop restaurants should not take the blame for the public's poor eating choice and lack of exercise. "Americans are eating themselves to death and looking for someone to blame," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
Republicans said that exposing the food industry to suits similar to those used against the tobacco industry could wreck the economy and make it more expensive to eat out. The industry employs almost 12 million people and is the nation's second largest employer behind the government.
"Food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person's consumption of legal, unadulterated food and a person's weight gain or obesity," the White House said in a statement supporting the GOP bill.
Democrats accused Republicans of a political ploy intended to hurt trial lawyers while helping a leading industry that can fend for itself.
Most obesity claims have been dismissed in court. Last year, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action suits blaming McDonald's for making people fat.
"It protects an industry that doesn't need to be protected at this particular point and we're dealing with a problem that doesn't exist," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. "The problem that does exist is that we have an obesity problem in this country."
Restaurants and snack food makers have announced plans to offer a larger number of more healthful products. McDonald's has announced it will end supersize fries and drinks except for special promotions in its more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants by year's end.
A poor diet and physical inactivity caused 400,000 deaths in 2000, a 33 percent jump over 1990, Tuesday's government report said.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., would prohibit many obesity or weight-related claims against the food industry. It would still allow claims to go forward if state or federal laws had been broken and as a result a person gained weight.
Democrats accused the GOP of wanting to let companies do whatever they want with no liability.
"Only with this Republican leadership would an effort to promote personal responsibility begin with allowing companies to be irresponsible without accountability," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
Louisiana has passed similar state legislation. Nineteen other state legislatures — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — were considering similar bills as of March 1, the National Conference of State Legislatures said Wednesday.