'Cheeseburger bill' would shield fast food restaurants from lawsuits over fatty food

WASHINGTON, March 10 (AFP) -- Paunchy Americans should consider diets or health clubs, because suing restaurants over fatty fare will be off the menu if a bill Congress debated Wednesday becomes law.

The House of Representatives debated the so-called cheeseburger bill, which would shield restaurants and food producers from Americans who put on weight with junk food and then take legal action over the negative health consequences.

The bill's author, Republican representative Ric Keller of Florida, argued that such lawsuits are not only frivolous, but harmful to the U.S. economy.

"We're talking about protecting the single largest private-sector employer in the United States that provides 12 million jobs," Keller said from the floor of the House, as debate got under way the legislation formally known as the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act.

"The gist of this legislation is that there should be common sense in the food court, not blaming other people in the legal court," Keller said.

Support for the bill divided largely along party lines, with Democrats saying the bill is a gift to the food industry, and Republicans decrying obesity lawsuits as an abuse by money-grubbing trial lawyers.

"The judicial system is being used by industrious law firms and plaintiffs' lawyers who sue without repercussion," Ohio Republican Bob Ney said from the House floor. "These insane and crazy lawsuits are absolutely not the way."

Massachusetts Democrat James McGovern insisted, however, that the legislation is unnecessary because such suits are rarely are allowed to proceed very far in the court system.

"All these insane, crazy lawsuits that people are referring to are getting dismissed," he said.

The first fast food lawsuit in the United States was filed in 2002 by an overweight New York man who blamed his frequent visits to McDonald's for his obesity and diabetes. Since then there has been of deluge of such litigation and growing concern by industry advocates that the pace of such litigation could quicken.

Opponents of the bill said it absolves the food industry of responsibility for its role in one of the most serious health crises facing the United States.

"This bill says to the restaurant industry and the food industry, you don't have any responsibility ... to our kids and the types of products you try to peddle to them," McGovern said.

A study the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released Tuesday found that obsesity-related diseases would top smoking as the leading cause of preventable death among Americans by 2005.

Almost 130 million Americans, or 64 percent of the population, are overweight or obese, and the problem is increasing across the board, including many children fond of greasy, high-calorie, fast-food meals.

And recent data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that 15.5 percent of children were seriously overweight and 15 percent more were at risk of becoming so -- three times the rate of a generation ago.

Total direct and indirect costs of obesity, including health care and lost productivity, were estimated at 117 billion dollars nationally in 2000, according to U.S. statistics.

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