LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Super-size the kids

October 31, 2005

As a parent and relatively new grandparent, Bob Filner knows it can be tough countering the ads that fast-food companies aim at youngsters during the cartoon hour.

And so he was among those fighting this month's House passage of the peculiarly named "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act," which sounds sort of like a plan to educate Americans on the importance of leafy greens, essential vitamins and the Food Pyramid.

In fact, the bill is a vehicle for the fast-food, snack-food and junk-food industries, which are growing a mite worried about their contribution to – and potential liability for – America's obesity epidemic.

In the tradition of all bills that pretend to go for one goal while really aiming at another, the "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act" purports to curb childhood obesity, while actually shielding companies from lawsuits. With rather far-reaching language, the legislation protects "manufacturers, distributors or sellers of food or nonalcoholic beverage products" from lawsuits blaming them for making people obese, unless they "knowingly or willfully" misrepresent their product.

Among those lobbying for the bill were McDonald's, Nestle and Frito-Lay – just a little guidance on who stands to lose the most from obesity lawsuits.

Before the House vote on what has cynically been dubbed the "Cheeseburger Bill," Filner, a San Diego Democrat, tried to amend the legislation so it did not apply to children younger than eight. He noted that fast-food chains routinely air their ads around TV cartoons, aiming them at impressionable youngsters who can't possibly understand that they are being manipulated. Without the threat of financial repercussions, Filner said, nothing encourages these companies to improve their products.

"We are talking about young children," Filner said, noting that the U.S. surgeon general has called childhood obesity a health issue rivaling cigarette smoking. "The pressure is on them through television . . . schools are bringing in the fast-food restaurants so they can make some more money. . . . Where is the responsibility for the adults who are running these advertisements?"

What parent doesn't understand the advertising-induced pressure to purchase a "Happy Meal" with toy included? Or to buy fat-soaked French fries whose secret ingredients make them irresistible to 5-year-olds?

But Filner's argument earned a predictable swipe from Republican proponents of the bill, who countered that parents are responsible for supplementing the occasional McDonald's burger and Wendy's shake with plenty of home-cooked, chicken-and-broccoli suppers. No one is lassoing family cars and dragging them to the drive-through window.

"This amendment tells parents that if they are not responsible for their children's eating, they can become millionaires," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. "It literally would hold food companies liable when parents buy their kids a six-pack of kid meals every day for eight years."

Filner retorted that Cannon "should be writing advertisements for the fast food industry."

The amendment didn't make it in the Republican-controlled House, which passed the bill with a 306-120 vote.

A SPLIT OVER THE SPLIT

Republican senators from the West are lining up to support a new plan – this would join many other proposals promoted unsuccessfully over the past decade – to split the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit's judges hear cases – take a deep breath – for California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, the Pacific Islands and (gasp) Washington. The latest proponents of a split are Alaska's and Nevada's GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski and John Ensign, respectively. They say the court is so huge that decisions are less thoughtful and independent than those from other circuits.

The lawmakers this month introduced a bill that would spin California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands into a separate court and create a court for the remaining states.

Foes, and those would include California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, contend that the split would "cost a fortune," says one insider, while leaving the California court with far greater caseloads per judge than any other circuit.

"Very big inequity," said the insider.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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