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CNN Sunday Morning

Interview With John Banzhaf, Richard Berman

Aired August 04, 2002 - 11:41   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Consumer advocates say Americans are losing choices when it comes to what they eat and drink. And that means they're also losing the fight against obesity. Part of the problem, say some, is that it starts in the school lunchroom. Joining us now from Washington, Richard Berman from the Center for Consumer Freedom and John Banzhaf, a professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining me this afternoon, or morning I should say, this Sunday morning. Well Richard, let me begin with you. In Texas and in California, school systems want to phase out junk food, perhaps to promote more leaner kids. At the same time, we're seeing that schools across the country are phasing out after-school sports and physical education. Are you seeing that there is a mixed message being sent to our school kids about being lean, being fit?

RICHARD BERMAN, CENTER FOR CONSUMER FREEDOM: There clearly is a mixed message. And in fact, most meals are still consumed at home. And when we have in the '90s over 31 percent -- over 31 percent drop in physical activity on a daily basis in schools, and then kids come home and they're on the Internet, they're playing video games instead of playing basketball games, you're going to have much lower energy expenditures over time.

And it's really no surprise that people aren't as physically fit as they were, either as kids or adults who are also investing in labor-saving devices from remote controlled TV's, to society providing moving sidewalks, escalators, elevators. All the way around, we are enough of a lazy society, if you will, that the term couch potato has become popularized over the years. And that has got to have a large component attached to it when we talk about people getting heavier.

JOHN BANZHAF, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: And clearly lack of exercise is one of the causes, but every study I've seen also identifies the proliferation of fast food companies and their advertising as the other major cause. That's why we're trying to use legal action, which was so effective against the problem of tobacco, now against the epidemic of obesity. We've brought five fat suits so far. One, we've won. One is almost won. Three are still in the courts.

And now as your intro suggests, we're turning to the schools, where many of these fast food companies and soft drink companies not only are providing the food for the kids, but are actually paying a bounty to the school for every can of sugary drink or fat burger that they sell...

WHITFIELD: Well, John...

BANZHAF: ...setting them up for obesity in life. And that's why we're looking into suing the school boards and possibly even the school board members.

WHITFIELD: And John, we're seeing specifically some of those class action suits brought in New York and Florida. But then how do you legislate what people consume, how they consume it, particularly when you're talking about young kids now? And then how do you enforce it, John?


BANZHAF: Well, the whole answer -- she said John. The whole answer to this is when you're talking about kids who are eight and nine years old, you -- don't really talking about free choice. They don't have very much. You make decisions not to feed them fat burgers. You make decisions to feed them healthier foods. Now when we talk about fast food restaurants and adults...

WHITFIELD: So those decisions, you're saying, need to be legally mandated as opposed to the parents making the decisions or healthy decisions with these kids?

BANZHAF: The parents don't make the decisions. The parents do not make the decisions now as to what those kids are eating in school. That's why the focus is on the schools, because often the start to obesity starts there in the schools.

When we talk about adults in fast food restaurants, nobody is saying we should stop letting them eat what they want. What we're saying is that there should be the same clear and conspicuous disclosure of fat content and calories in the food. There ought to be a tax on fatty foods to help fund health warning messages as we do with cigarettes. And probably also fast food places should offer a choice.

WHITFIELD: Well, Richard, let me bring you in. How do you see such legislation as further murking the waters or perhaps helping parents make better decisions for their kids or kids being enforced in some way, legislative way of eating right?

BERMAN: Well, first of all, if I could Fredricka, I'd like to address something that John just said. He has claimed that they've won lawsuits in this area. And he's been on TV saying this for some time. There was a lawsuit that was settled by McDonald's over whether or not there was beef flavoring in french fries. It had nothing to do with...

BANZHAF: That's beef fat.

BERMAN: It had nothing to do with the obesity epidemic. It had -- and actually the money...

WHITFIELD: That was an issue of a vegetarian thing.

BANZHAF: A vegetarian thing, yes.

WHITFIELD: Argument.

BANZHAF: Yes, but it was a fat...

BERMAN: John, I...

BANZHAF: ...lawsuit. We've got five fat lawsuits.

BERMAN: John, I let you talk for a while, John, now if you will. The problem is, is that guys like John are in this for a fast buck. This is all about lawyers trying to clog the arteries of the judicial system. And when these guys find that they can come in with a class action suit against the company, and thereby give them some bad PR and settle for a few dollars, they're going to keep doing this. And the public needs to be aware of that.

This lawsuit is being laughed at by most people who are legitimate commentators on the legal system. And John has done the same thing with tobacco. John's got a foundation that's got about $4 million in it. He pays himself $175,000 a year off of this deal, while he is a full time professor. And this is -- it gets down to being all about money.

WHITFIELD: However Richard, you know, initially even with the tobacco lawsuits, some people laughed at that likelihood of a victory for the plaintiffs. Instead, many people thought that, you know, there was not a chance that you could make the connection between tobacco usage and the cancerous deaths of so many. So perhaps, you know, John is saying that same argument can be made for young kids. You know...

BERMAN: The same argument, Fredricka, the same argument has to then fly on the face of addiction. And there's no addiction issue here. If you're going to sue the fast food companies for people eating the wrong kinds of foods, then you're going to sue grocery stores. You're going to see mothers taken up on child abuse for giving kids the wrong food.

This thing cannot be taken to an illogical conclusion, which is what John's lawsuit is all about. Tobacco and asbestos and Dalcon shields are not the same thing as hamburgers.

WHITFIELD: Well, John quickly, real quick John...

BANZHAF: The problem is that Rick is not...

WHITFIELD: about five seconds, if you could just tell me how in the world this would be enforced, if there were to be legislation?

BANZHAF: Rick isn't an attorney.

BERMAN: Rick is an attorney. Thank you very much. BANZHAF: They laughed at all of our cases, the tobacco cases. We've won them. If we win these, yes, we're going to continue pushing. We're going to be suing school boards and school board members if they insist upon foisting off on innocent young kids, fat burgers and sugary drinks.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks very much, John Banzhaf. I'm going to have you have the last word. And Richard Berman, perhaps we'll have you come back again once we find that perhaps this...

BERMAN: Once you find out how much John is making off of all this...


BERMAN: would another good story.

WHITFIELD: Well, once we see exactly where these lawsuits might be going, we'll invite you back. Thanks very much, I appreciate it.

BERMAN: Thank you.

BANZHAF: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: ...both of you.