A law winding its way through the General Assembly would make it impossible to hold food manufacturers liable in cases of obesity.
By Holly West
North Carolina will soon choose a side in the war against the Big Gulp.
A bill being heard by the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations would protect the food industry from the kind of lawsuits in which customers blame businesses for weight gain or obesity.
The Commonsense Consumption Act (HB683) says food manufacturers, advertisers, sellers and others in the industry cannot be held liable in civil suits involving weight gain or obesity, or any health problems that come from being overweight.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Phillip Shepard (R-Jacksonville) said the purpose of the bill is to protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits.
“We’ve seen in other states where people have gone to the extreme of filing a lawsuit because they eat too much or they smoke all their life,” he said. “I think you’re responsible and accountable for your own self.”
A national campaign
If the bill passes, North Carolina will join a long list of states that have passed similar legislation.
In the past several years, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has pitched Commonsense Consumption acts to state legislatures from Alabama to Illinois. North Carolina’s version of the bill is almost identical to the ALEC boilerplate.
A bill of the same name was also introduced in Congress in 2005, 2007 and 2009, but never passed.
But unlike ALEC’s model legislation, North Carolina’s Commonsense Consumption Act would also ban municipal and county governments from regulating soft drink sizes.
North Carolina is also one of many states considering so-called “anti-Bloomberg bills,” a reaction to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempted ban on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces.
Thus far, Mississippi is the only state that has actually made such a bill into law.
Frivolous lawsuits or frivolous law?
Katie Spears, team leader for Real Food and Active Living at Youth Empowered Solutions, a statewide nonprofit organization that advocates for young people, said her organization opposes the bill.
“We feel like this is a bill that is crafted to address a problem that does not exist,” Spears said. “No one is trying to pass legislation on the size that beverages are sold.”
Spears said she fears the bill will limit the ability of local governments to combat obesity.
“It protects companies instead of people,” she said.
Todd Barlow, political affairs counsel at North Carolina Advocates for Justice, said his organization is opposed to the part of the bill that bans lawsuits against the food industry for obesity-related claims.
“It’s just not necessary,” he said. “We can’t find any evidence that an obesity lawsuit has been filed in North Carolina.”
Barlow said if a lawsuit does come up, food producers would be protected by the state’s contributory negligence law, which makes it impossible for an individual to sue for damages if they contributed in any way to the injury for which they are suing.
But Rep. Shepard said there are loopholes in the contributory negligence law that may allow some obesity lawsuits to succeed.
“This will cover it all,” Shepard said. “There won’t be any chance for anything to slide through. We certainly wanted to make sure we had the ground covered here.”
Cover image by S.Diddy, flickr creative commons