A Lawsuit to Choke On

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What do you do if you're dangerously overweight? Most of us would go see a doctor or nutritionist who's trained to deal with obesity.

That option apparently wasn't good enough for Caesar Barber. Last Friday, he filed a lawsuit against McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Barber claims they sold him the food that made him obese, and that they should therefore be held accountable for "wrecking his life."

"They said '100 percent beef.' I thought that meant it was good for you," Barber told Newsday. "I thought the food was OK."

Obesity is a hot topic right now. Citing an epidemic of obesity in America, three senators on Tuesday proposed a bill that would provide millions of dollars to weight-loss programs nationwide. Although the legislation will lie dormant during the Senate's summer recess, its message is clear: We're too fat, and now even the government is worried about it.

There are plenty of reasons for Washington to worry about the expanding national waistline. Today, one in four American adults is obese, almost twice the 1980 rate. Obesity, characterized by a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, causes about 300,000 deaths a year in the U.S., and is the country's second largest cause of unnecessary deaths, according to the American Obesity Association. It can lead to such potentially dangerous, even life-threatening conditions as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis. And those complaints translate into major doctors' (read: insurance) bills and lost days at work — a general drain, in other words, on the national coffers.

Back to Mr. Barber. According to the Associated Press, Barber is a 5-foot-10-inch maintenance worker who weighs 272 pounds. He suffered heart attacks in 1996 and 1999 and has diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Samuel Hirsch, Barber's lawyer, told the AP, "There is direct deception when someone omits telling people food digested is detrimental to their health."

Yes. And there's a little something we like to call abject stupidity when someone refuses to take even the slightest bit of responsibility for their own actions — or, for that matter, refuses to walk the extra three feet and read the nutrition information posted on the wall of almost every fast-food restaurant. I'm sorry Mr. Barber isn't well, but when you've had multiple heart attacks, and you continue to eat Biggie Fries for lunch, you've either got a serious lack of IQ points and probably shouldn't be allowed to wander the streets alone, or you've got a death wish.

Barber is, of course, using the same argument many individuals and numerous states have successfully employed in their suits against the tobacco companies: You sold us this product, and even though we probably realized it wasn't good for us, we kept using it anyway; now we're dying, arguably at the hand of your product, and you're going to have to pay. But even if that argument is valid (and I have my doubts), isn't it a bit of a stretch to leap from cigarettes to Big Macs?

Cigarettes, for one thing, are spectacularly addictive — as addictive, some scientists maintain, as heroin. And addiction is a difficult, though not impossible, straightjacket to escape. Quarter Pounders with cheese, on the other hand, are not addictive. They may be awfully tasty, and a convenient source of calories, but biting into a cheeseburger does not create a chemical hook in people's brains that keeps luring them back. Even Barber admits his choice to eat fast food was based on free will, telling the AP he started eating fast food in the 1950s because it was "cheap and efficient."

Right. And I started tanning with baby oil when I was 13 because it was a cheaper and more efficient way to get a healthy glow than going out and buying that self-tanner stuff. I knew the sun was bad for me, but I kept at it well into my 20s before coming to my senses. Does this mean that if I develop wrinkles or skin cancer later in life, I can sue the sun? Or the companies that produce chemicals linked to ozone-layer depletion (and resultant higher UV levels?) Or maybe I should just sue my parents for not locking me in a dark basement for the duration of my adolescence (something I'm sure they considered doing anyway)?

At some point in the near future, Americans are going to have to decide, en masse, whether we want to be treated like adults in our own country. Do we want to file frivolous lawsuits against every company that makes a product we might eventually have a problem with? If that's what everyone wants, that's fine. But here's something to think about: if we're too irresponsible to decide what we put in our bodies day after day, are we really responsible enough to do all the "adult" things we take for granted — like drive a car, for example, or vote? To be honest, I'm not sure I would trust Caesar Barber to do either.