Surge in obesity lawsuits spur schools to change unhealthy habits By Maggie Master
Chicago Public Schools' decision to ban soda and junk food from vending machines may prove to be a healthy choice not just for the children's physical fitness but for the district's financial fitness as well.
The district's effort is intended to combat a rise in obesity, which may soon eclipse smoking as the main cause of preventable death in the United States. And it follows the same move by the nation's two largest school districts, Los Angeles and New York City, which banned junk from school machines last year.
But these bans are not just prompted by the rise in childhood obesity and the idea that less access to junk food is best for the health of children, they are also a result of a a surge in obesity lawsuits. And the warning from legal experts that the schools are the next battleground for the court fight on obesity.
"As a public interest lawyer, I ask: Where can I bring the most effective case?" says John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C. A strong case Increasingly, the strongest obesity case is the one to be brought against school districts. Banzhaf says, school boards are extremely vulnerable for several reasons, including that they are in a special position of trust and responsibility and therefore have a greater obligation to children than a manufacturer, which must prove only that it has not misled its customers.
Most elementary and high school students are a "captive audience," Banzhaf says, unable to leave campus to find other, presumably healthier options. In addition, because schools make a profit from vending sales, there is a potential conflict of interest between advocating for student health and seeking money, according to Banzhaf.
The Chicago Public Schools have made about $20 million dollars in it's five year exclusive contract with Coca-Cola-$12 million dollars came from actual sales of products and $8 million from the company's exclusivity contract.
That agreement is about to expire and the district has begun shopping for a new vendor and is looking for one who offer healthier choices, according to Maged Hanafi, CPS' assistant director of food services. "Our new policy is to serve only healthy products," he says.
He says the district has no idea how the switch will affect revenues but adds the main concern is the children's health not the district's revenue.
Carbonated, sweetened soft drinks accounted for 50 percent of all beverages sold in the district last year, according to Kevin Morris, vice president of public affairs at Coca-Cola's Midwest division. Kari Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, says notes the company has expanded its already large selection of diet soft drinks and sells smaller serving sizes in some markets, including 8 oz. cans and 16 oz. plastic bottles, down from 12 and 20 ounces.
Blame the machine? One 2001 study, released by the British Medical Journal, Lancet, found that a school-based education program helped children in a test group drink fewer carbonated drinks, which, in turn, was linked to a slight decline in the group's obesity levels. It also showed that for each additional daily soft drink serving consumed, the odds a child will become obese increase by 60 percent.
But Chris Young, project coordinator for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, says that there is no concrete data to support the notion that vending machine sales affect obesity levels and stressed that there is no single cause of obesity. The consortium is a local obesity prevention effort, with more than 600 members including Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago Public Schools, University of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.
Young points to a study released by the consortium in December indicating obesity is substantial in the Chicago Public School system. The study of 1,208 children ages 3-7 in 25 Chicago schools, showed 23 percent were overweight, compared with a national average of 10.4 percent in the same age group.
"Schools are not the only places kids eat," Young says. "For people to demonize a vending machine is to lose sight of the entire problem." The only way to stem obesity, Young says, is to promote healthy lifestyle changes in and out of school. She also noted that physical education programs are often the first thing cut in underfunded schools.
For his part, Banzhaf is confident that anti-fat lawsuits have the muscle to enact real change, and he is not fazed by attempts to block suits, saying that the language of current legislation would not protect districts and other groups from potential litigation. A group of trial lawyers, including Banzhaf, threatened litigation against the Seattle Public School System if the district renewed its exclusive contract with Coca-Cola last fall. That district modified the contract to allow for water and juice drinks.
Banzhaf compares recent efforts to tobacco litigation, which spurred a nationwide informational campaign, legislation banning cigarette commercials and smoking in many public places. Though he notes that obesity litigation and the changes it creates are occurring much faster than with tobacco.
"Fat is going to be the next tobacco," Banzhaf says, and there will be no shortage of defendants.
Maggie Master is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and writes for the Medill News Service.