As the number of obese and overweight Americans has climbed, many people have searched for causes and prevention strategies, with some noting that fat may be “the next tobacco” as researchers continue to find links between obesity and a variety of health issues. Questions have arisen about whether some ingredients, such as cheese, cause behaviors that amount to addiction,  and one study compared the neurological effects of high-fat foods to those of cocaine or heroin. Many have pointed to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) as a significant cause of rising obesity rates in children. Researchers and health experts have sought an entity to blame—including food companies, marketing, grocery checkout lanes, genetics, neurobiology, environmental exposure, immunology and hormones.

As consumers filed lawsuits alleging companies are to blame for the ill health effects associated with eating their products, state governments introduced and, in some cases, passed legislation to protect companies from lawsuits alleging weight gain as an injury. Agencies of the federal government coalesced to launch a campaign to curb obesity while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pursued litigation protecting obese people from discrimination. Courts were persuaded to recognize some levels of obesity as a disability.

Food addiction models have been controversial, with some questioning whether the premise is useful. The American Psychiatric Association declined to include food addiction in the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders despite including arguably comparable addictions such as gambling. In recent years, much of the public policy focus has centered on taxing SSBs to reduce obesity rates. Several U.S. cities have approved SSB taxes—including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle—while other proposed taxes have failed, such as in Massachusetts and Santa Fe. Although several of the approved taxes faced potential barriers in the latter half of 2017, with Chicago repealing its tax after two months of enforcement and a California court barring San Francisco from enforcing part of its regulation, SSB taxes are expected to continue gaining traction in the United States and internationally in 2018.

About The Author

For decades, manufacturers, distributors and retailers at every link in the food chain have come to Shook, Hardy & Bacon to partner with a legal team that understands the issues they face in today's evolving food production industry. Shook attorneys work with some of the world's largest food, beverage and agribusiness companies to establish preventative measures, conduct internal audits, develop public relations strategies, and advance tort reform initiatives.

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