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Here's a Yummy Idea: Suing Big Food to Pay Obesity Costs

David Callahan

The American food industry has made a killing for years by pumping their products full of unhealthy but delicious ingredients. This was documented most recently by Michael Moss in his book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How Food Giants Hooked Us, which showed how food companies manipulated levels of highly addictive, but unhealthy ingredients, to draw consumers to their products.  

If that sounds familiar, it's because tobacco companies did the same thing with nicotine to get Americans hooked on cigarettes. 
Now some are proposing that state attorneys general go after Big Food the same way they went after Big Tobacco: With a massive lawsuit to get food companies to pay some of the healthcare costs associated with obesity, which states pick up through Medicaid spending. In the 1990s, tobacco companies reached a historic settlement with 46 states that forced them to pay $246 billion and agree to stop marketing cigarettes to young people. 
It's hard to think of a more dramatic example of private industry being held accountable for the damage inflicted on Americans in pursuit of profits. And the prospects of states repeating this feat with Big Food is, well, mouth watering. 
Indeed, an argument can be made that Big Food plays a much more pernicious role in driving up healthcare costs than the tobacco industry. As I've argued elsewhere, it's not clear that premature deaths from lung cancer actually increase healthcare costs, since people who live longer and die more drawn out deaths from other causes -- like Alzheimer's -- may incur higher health costs. That's why I'm not a big fan of jacking cigarette taxes (which are mainly paid by low-income people) in the name of defraying health costs.
Obesity, on the other hand, really does push up healthcare costs in the aggregate. That's because it's a driver of chronic health conditions that are costly to treat, diabetes most notably, but also heart disease. 
What about personal responsibility, you might wonder? McDonald's doesn't force anyone to walk through its doors. To this point, advocates of suing argue that yes, individuals do share a portion of the blame. And food companies also share some portion -- a super size portion they should pay for, since right now the entire cost of poisoning America with junk food is being picked up by the public. 
Anyway, the ultimate goal should not be just imposing a financial penalty and helping states cope with budgetary pressures. The really exciting prospect here is that litigation could force food companies to truly change behavior, leading to better health among Americans and lower healthcare costs. While everyone spends a lot of time talking about ways to reduce healthcare costs by reforming our health system, another obvious strategy is to foster better health so people need less healthcare to begin with. The Affordable Care Act has a number of features to promote preventative health, but as long as the food companies keep us addicted to salty, sweet, and fatty foods, fostering better health will be an uphill battle. 
A massive lawsuit against Big Food is a long shot according to many experts, but sounds like it's worth trying to me. Even a partial victory could be sumptuous.