” … all these platitudes about, ‘people should eat less,’ ‘responsibility,’ all this crap!”

— John Banzhaf, May 8, 2003

Courtroom shark John Banzhaf certainly ate his Wheaties on Thursday morning, trumpeting his disdain for personal responsibility and consumer choice before a capacity crowd at the National Press Club. Less than 24 hours after leaking the substance of his remarks to a Reuters reporter, Banzhaf announced that his efforts to win multi-billion-dollar obesity verdicts against restaurants would hinge on the food-is-addictive arguments found in a British science magazine called New Scientist. Banzhaf even hand-delivered a letter to the president of the National Restaurant Association, detailing how he planned to use a New Scientist article to establish the so-called “addictive properties of fast foods.”

Don’t get us wrong: New Scientist is a fine magazine. But it represents science journalism at the same consumer-targeted level as Discover or Scientific American — as opposed to the more scholarly JAMA, Nature, or the New England Journal of Medicine. The latest issue of New Scientist features stories titled “The fight to retrieve looted treasures,” “Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction,” and “Peanut butter attains golden status.”

When New Scientist published an article in February claiming that “a few” scientists “believe foods can trigger changes that are similar to full-blown addiction,” Banzhaf and his trial-lawyer brethren apparently thought that the scientific world had reached consensus on the silly question of whether food is addictive.

No matter. Banzhaf is in full-blown attack mode now, insisting in the British press that “under the law we do not need absolute certainty that it is addictive,” telling a Scripps Howard reporter that “restaurants are deceiving people,” and warning (in Barron’s): “Somewhere there will be a jury that returns a verdict [against restaurants], and then the genie will be out of the bottle.” Radio talker Rush Limbaugh seemed to echo this last comment, reminding his listeners on Friday that “the anti-tobacco lawyers lost their early cases too, but over time they used those losses to advance their agenda, ultimately resulting in huge legal victories.” [audio link]

Before you start stockpiling Whoppers in anticipation of the price increases that would accompany a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit settlement, consider this: the Reuters story that preceded Banzhaf’s current flurry was headlined “Lawyers plan new fast food assault.” Lawyers — not doctors, nutritionists, biologists, or other scientists — are behind this attack on restaurants. The real experts tend to show far more common sense.

When the New Scientist article first hit the newsstands, Professor James Griffith Edwards (editor of the scientific journal Addiction), told the British newspaper The Independent: “Whether a burger habit can be regarded as an addiction depends on how you define addiction … I am quite fond of dark chocolate but it is not going to destroy my life like a heroin addiction.”

And Dr. Keith Ayoob, professor of pediatrics at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, went on the record with United Press International a few hours after John Banzhaf’s latest tantrum:

Obesity is a condition of excess and it’s cured with balance. People choose to consume food in restaurants, but it’s up to each person to decide how much they are willing to eat. You may order a meal that’s every [sic] large, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat it all. That’s why God invented the doggie bag. Where’s it going to stop? Should you sue your employer because you’re kept too busy to work at the gym? We have a very litigious society. Even if you get them to cough it up, is it going solve our obesity problem? No. I don’t think going after restaurants is the answer.