Joe Camel vs. Ronald McD


Joe Camel vs. Ronald McDonald



Not only have ineffective medical methods become problematic to the well-being of Americans, so have their personal bad health habits been a source of disease. Aided by political lobbyists and supporters in Congress, bad health attitudes remain a stumbling block for real healthcare reform.

The 1993-94 Clinton healthcare reform effort, Task Force on National Health Care Reform, headed by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, revealed that 85% of all diseases are preventable and 75% are caused by junk foods and tobacco. Alcohol, smoking and other drug problems were estimated to account for 25% of the national health care budget.[1]

The Clinton Administration’s attempt to reform healthcare was killed by the medical cartel that cleverly used a viral television marketing campaign funded by the insurance industry, featuring the infamous Harry and Louise ads, to frighten and turn the public and Congress against Clinton’s plan. However, the dangers associated with tobacco and junk foods led to legislation that successfully attacked the tobacco industry for product liability before his term expired.

Unfortunately, the Republican-led Congress under the George W. Bush Administration had different ideas about junk food manufacturers. Years before the Obama healthcare reform, Congress under Bush set the course for enabling more disease in America by protecting the purveyors of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in controversial legislation that came to be known as the Cheeseburger Bill.

Unlike product liability legislation passed during the Clinton administration and Democratic Congress relating to smoking and alcohol consumption, unhealthy foods remained largely unregulated and the leading cause of disease in America, if not the world. Apparently Ronald McDonald had a stronger lobby and more sympathetic supporters on Capitol Hill than Joe Camel.

Obesity in American gained national attention in 2002 when lawsuits were filed by disgruntled customers. According to an article in TIME magazine, “A Lawsuit to Choke On”:

In July, 2002, Caesar Barber filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Barber claimed the food that they sold him made him obese, and that they should therefore be held accountable for “wrecking his life” … Samuel Hirsch, Barber’s lawyer, said “There is direct deception when someone omits telling people food digested is detrimental to their health” … Barber was a 5-foot-10-inch maintenance worker who weighed 272 pounds. He suffered heart attacks in 1996 and 1999 and has diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. [2]

TIME admitted, “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. [3]

Similar lawsuits for product liability were filed and won against the tobacco industry during the Clinton administration, and the thought that Ronald McDonald might be held responsible for the obesity epidemic stuck in the throat of too many in Congress and the Bush White House who swarmed to defend the hamburger giant, Big Mac.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Health reported that 61% of American adults were overweight, 13% of children and adolescents were overweight, and obesity caused approximately 300,000 deaths a year.[4] Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher predicted if the number of overweight and obese Americans continued to grow unabated, the epidemic would cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking. Satcher was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1998 and remained Surgeon General until 2002, the first half of the first term of President George W. Bush’s administration.

Three years later, Satcher’s prediction came to fruition when Congress reported the costs of treatment, prevention, and health-related incidents related to overweight and obese Americans was an estimated $117 billion, exceeding the costs of health-related incidents related to tobacco.[5] Nonetheless, the White House and Congress ignored his warning and the dire obesity statistics, and eventually this lack of leadership contributed to the present healthcare crisis.

Congress finally passed legislation basically giving junk food vendors immunity from product liability.[6] To protect the junk food industry, Congress voted to give Ronald McDonald a “get out of jail free” card for all past, present, and future damages.

On October 19, 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a 306-120 vote the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, H.R. 554, 108th Cong. (2003), dubbed the “Cheeseburger Bill,” that would block lawsuits from being filed against restaurants in federal or state courts and dismissed pending civil actions by any person against a manufacturer or seller of food or a trade association for any injury resulting from a person’s consumption of food and weight gain, obesity, or any associated health condition.

Senator Mitch McConnell, (R-KY) sponsored a related bill in the Senate, The Commonsense Consumption Act of 2003, that was backed heavily by the National Restaurant Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.[7] The Bush White House also endorsed the bill, stating that “food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person’s consumption of legal, unadulterated food and a person’s weight gain or obesity.”[8]

With the blessings of both Congress and the Bush White House, why does anyone seem shocked today by Americans’ obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease problems? Even former President Bill Clinton was mocked by the media for his rest breaks while jogging to McDonalds for French fries, which may have contributed to Clinton’s quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 and another bypass surgery in February, 2010.[9]

Apparently junk food is a bipartisan problem, and we wonder why we have a national epidemic. Aside from Satcher, no other medical group spoke out in favor of limiting junk foods, including the AMA. The White House stamp of approval now allows Ronald McDonald to run amok wrecking havoc among our children without any accountability. As this trend continues into adulthood, America will certainly reach the tipping point Obama feared when sick-care costs will bankrupt this country.

Most surprisingly, the public and many news pundits agreed with Congress on this matter with a “you can’t tell us what to eat” attitude!

Ironically, I can still remember the news conference in the Capitol Rotunda after the vote when a rather rotund Republican Congressman from Indiana proudly announced the same sentiments that Congress cannot tell him how to eat right. Listening to this obese man spitting up his milk about “Big Brother telling me what to eat” characterized what many in the public felt, too.

A July 7-9, 2003 Gallup poll reported that 89 percent of Americans believed that restaurants should not be held liable for an individual’s obesity or weight gain.[10] Only a third of Americans believed the fast-food industry bears much responsibility for the health problems faced by obese Americans. The public believed that consumers, rather than fast-food companies, should be held responsible for what people eat.

Whether the public appreciated the full extent of these supposed health risks or chose to ignore them with the proverbial “head in the sand attitude” was not clear, but according to the poll, most U.S. adults appeared to be generally aware that most fast food is not good for them: three-quarters of Americans believed this, while about one-quarter (23%) believed that it was good for them. Perhaps this 23% constitute the obese people who cannot admit the source of their problem with their junk food addictions.

Apparently the love of junk food even affected the writer for TIME magazine when he wrote:

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.”

The Cheeseburger Bill illustrated that Congress and the public were not serious about attacking the obesity and health problems in this country; it is easy to understand why Obama met resistance on Capitol Hill a few years later. Although Joe Camel had his hooves held to the fire, Ronald McDonald got off Scott free.


[1] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Seventh Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health. Rockville MD: NIAAA, 1990.

[2] Michael Kinsley, “A Lawsuit to Choke On,” TIME magazine, 160/7 (July 31, 2002)

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity [hereinafter “Call To Action”] § 1 (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., 2001), at XIII, 1, 11, available at,

[5] Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act, H.R. 5412, 107th Cong. § 2(1)(2002).

[6] National Conference of State Legislators,

[7] William B. Werner & Andrew Hale Feinstein & Christian E. Hardigree, “The Risk To The American Fast-Food Industry Of Obesity Litigation,” Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48/2 (May, 2007): 112-113.

[8] Carl Hulse, “Vote in House Offers a Shield in Obesity Suits,” NY Times, March 11, 2004, at section A, page 1.

[9] The Associated Press, “Bill Clinton Recovering at Home,” NY Times,  February 13, 2010

[10] Lydia Saad, “ Public Balks at Obesity Lawsuits,” Gallup poll, July 7-9, 2003,