This act enlarged the labels on the cigarettes, and required that the labels on cigarettes and cigarette ads say things like,."..Cause lung cancer...may complicate pregnancy...quitting smoking now greatly reduces hazards to your health... may result in low birth weight and fetal injury." Yet despite all these attempts to educate, all the package warnings and all the public service ads, we still see that despite the millions of dollars spent on smoking prevention each year, every year sees more and more people taking up the habit, until today death from cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer in the United States, contributed in a great part by smoking. And yet we keep legislating, when then proof shows that what we are doing is not working.
Our discussion of vice-based legislation now brings us to the subject of fattening foods. In 2002, a lawyer in New York filed suit against the four biggest fast food corporations in the United States. In this suit, the lawyer alleged that the foods that these companies sold had contributed to his client's obesity and related medical problems. The plaintiff evidently felt that the nutritional information provided by the companies was "irresponsible and deceptive" and that these corporations had, in effect, caused addictions in this client in very much the same ways that big tobacco companies had been found liable for the cancers which had been diagnosed in lifetime smokers. The United States House of Representatives moved quickly to ban lawsuits in this ilk, in part because of the action of restaurant corporation lobbyists, and in part in a move by the Republicans to ban what they termed "frivolous" law suits. The legislators cited the need for personal responsibility, for common sense and the need for our culture to move away from what has been termed a victim mentality. Some in legal circles felt that the bill went too far, was basically unnecessary legislation which easily and more appropriately should have been handled at the level of the courts, where it is at the discretion of the judge to throw frivolous law suits out of court. But some played the devil's advocate and asked why the victims of cancer emphysema were not cautioned to practice self-control and personal responsibility regarding their use of cigarettes, especially in those who had continued to smoke or started smoking in the years following the Surgeon General's warning regarding the effect of cigarettes on health. Some sectors felt that this kind of legislation would hold a large sector of the American industry exempt from law suits, but others noted that there simply was not the science to support the claims of the obese that the food they had eaten was in essence "addictive" and that they were physically and mentally unable to stop, despite adverse physical effects like obesity, diabetes and other co-morbidities. A large part of the lawsuit against the fast food companies stated that the foods were presented in a misleading manner, which nutritional information was not provided for customers. But would our experience with the warning labels on cigarettes teach us anything about this claim? We know that it clearly states on cigarette packages that they are harmful to health, yet people use them regularly. What would be any different for a person who was forced to look at a sign that indicated the caloric content and fat grams of an offending hamburger? Why was one dismissed summarily and the other held up? Was it a matter of science? While studies have proven that nicotine has been addictive, have similar studies shown that food is not? We know that there are people who have eating disorders - is the science sound? There are some who opine that the fact that the plaintiff was obese, and that obesity is less socially acceptable than cancer, even when that cancer is directly associated with cigarette smoking, both apparently matters of personal choice and responsibility. This again is another subject for further research.
The makers of alcoholic beverages have not, to this point, been held to the same standard as tobacco and fast food corporations. Why should this be? Alcohol can be hazardous to the heath, has a definite association with addiction, can shorten life, contribute to other health conditions, and injure the unborn. Is it not true that alcohol can be considered a factor in any number of accidents and incidents, such as motor vehicle accidents, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancies? On the whole, world wide intake of alcohol is on the increase. Yet according to the World Health Organization, about one hundred and forty million people suffer from alcohol dependence. In fact, in a world where children are carded for cigarettes and fast food companies are taking super sized portions off their menus in response to legal challenges, we are seeing a reduction in the number of "dry counties" in the Southern United States, we are seeing an increase in the number of states that allow liquor sales on Sundays, and even states which have allowed the in-store sampling of sprits. How has alcohol managed to avoid the same kind of scrutiny and legal challenge of it's vice like brothers?
One reason may be that, on the whole, the intake of alcohol is decreasing among the more affluent nations. Even in the United States there has been a decrease in the amount of alcohol intake per capita over the last two decades. According to statistics, the average American consumed 6.7 liters of alcohol in 2001, which is a reduction from 8.3 liters in 1980.
It also may be that the dangerous of over-imbibing are too well-known. It would be hard for any drinker to plead ignorance of the effects of alcohol on judgment in court. This is not to say that lawsuits do not happen. For example, a chain restaurant in Ohio paid out a 21 million dollar settlement in 2002 on a lawsuit brought by the parents of two teenagers killed in a drunken driving accident. The burden was placed upon the restaurant to confirm that the boys were of age to drink before serving them. But one must thing, if the boys were over age 21 and if they had been drinking to excess, and been killed in the same accident, would the restaurant chain still have been found liable? What about the element of personal judgment and responsibility which was used as an excuse in the legislation against frivolous law suits in the fast food case? It is not cited in the article how old the boys are, but were they twenty, still under the age of legal intake, one would assume that the restaurant would have been found liable as well, since the boys were underage, and the company was found negligent because they served underage customers. So is the burden of personal responsibility and judgment somehow less in a 20-year-old than in a 21-year-old? If this is true, then why would a 20-year-old be allowed to marry, to adopt, to enlist in the armed services, to carry a gun, to vote for president? Is there one standard of personal responsibility that applies to everything else EXCEPT alcohol?
Perhaps the cause of alcoholism has lost favor in light of more interesting and popular causes, and that is why big alcohol corporations are not targets for legal action as some of the other "vice based" industries are. It has been noted that at this point, many health foundations and organizations have turned their money and efforts away from alcohol and towards what they deem more important causes, like the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surrounding childhood obesity, and the World Health Organization's campaign against the use of tobacco.
Interestingly enough, in the management of issues surrounding alcohol use, most of the public health organizations are staying away from a legalistic approach and instead attempting to partner up with alcohol companies to provide a program which fosters the idea of "responsible drinking."
The World Health Organizations and others like it appear to have a more pragmatic attitude towards drinking than that which is seen with the use of tobacco. While it is true that alcohol is not as "lethal" as tobacco, it has its own shares of public health risks. There is a school of thought that believes that a reduction in the amount and prevalence of advertising surrounding alcoholic beverages, especially in areas around schools and in the times when children are more likely to be watching television, is the newest plan, the ultimate thought being that be making alcohol less visual and available then the less people will drink. Again, the vague science that does exist around issues such as this would lead you back to the report of the FTC, which indicated that the removal of cigarette ads from television and radio did not appear to have a significant effect on the direct consumption of tobacco products. Is there something inherently different about alcohol? Or are the…