For tobacco control, the 1990s were the era of tobacco litigation. A myriad of individual, class action, and state Attorney General suits transformed the tobacco control environment and resulted in lasting change in the way tobacco products are marketed and how the public views tobacco companies. Perhaps of most note, the MSA of November 1998 required the participating tobacco companies to agree to restrict certain marketing practices, disband trade associations, reform their corporate behavior, and provide hundreds of billions of dollars to settling states over the next 25 years (Schroeder, 2004). In addition to significant financial disgorgement, tobacco litigation in the 1990s also resulted in an unprecedented level of tobacco industry document disclosure that has served as a treasure trove of insight, scholarship, and, perhaps most importantly, changed the social-normative opinion of the general public toward tobacco companies (Bero, 2003).
With respect to food-related litigation, there have been some initial attempts to sue fast food restaurants based on the claim that they are at least partially responsible for the epidemic of childhood obesity, and for other reasons, such as consumer safety (e.g., excessive temperature of coffee resulting in customer harm). To date, these efforts have been less than successful, but are widely seen as the vanguard of future litigation efforts (Mello et al., 2003). In fact, attorneys experienced in tobacco litigation recently sponsored a conference to develop strategies and resources to direct individual and class action efforts toward the problems of childhood obesity.
At this point, it is not clear whether these efforts will follow the tobacco model and be successful in obtaining settlements or court victories. The process of discovery is likely to yield internal documents that could be damaging to, at least, the public’s perception of food companies. On the other hand, the current cases have tended to be seen by the public as frivolous, and as disregarding the dimension of personal responsibility. In response to the increase in litigation directed against food severs and manufacturers, Senator Mitch McConnell, a pro-tobacco legislator from Kentucky, introduced “The Common Sense for Consumption Act,” which seeks to stop frivolous law suits against restaurants and the food industry (Higgins, 2003). A dozen states have introduced legislation aimed at prohibiting lawsuits against food and beverage manufacturers for obesity-related health problems (Campos, 2004). This approach is consonant with the effort to provide immunity to manufacturers and distributors of potentially harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol, and guns. Congress is currently considering providing immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers from civil suits by victimized families and local governments (New York Times, 2004). Public attitudes toward suing fast food restaurants, docu-