Ethics Angle

Who’s Getting Fat from Fast Food?

Product liability laws cover the responsibility of manufacturers, sellers, and others for injuries caused by defective products. Under product liability laws, a toy manufacturer can be held liable if a child is harmed by a toy that’s been manufactured and used with a design flaw. The manufacturer can also be held liable for defects in marketing the toy, such as giving improper instructions on its use or failing to warn consumers about potential dangers. But what if the product isn’t a toy, but rather a fast-food kid’s meal? And what if the harm isn’t immediately obvious but emerges over time?

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These questions are being debated in the legal and health professions (and the media). Some people believe that fast-food restaurants should be held responsible (at least in part) for childhood obesity. They argue that fast-food products—such as kids’ meals made up of high-calorie burgers, fried chicken fingers, French fries, and sugary soft drinks—are helping to make U.S. children overweight. They point out that while restaurant chains spend billions each year to advertise fast food to children, they don’t do nearly enough to warn parents of the dangers posed by such foods. On the other side of the debate are restaurant owners, who argue that they’re not the culprits. They say that their food can be a part of a child’s diet—if it’s eaten in moderation.

There’s no disputing that 20 percent of American children ages 6–11 and 10 percent of children ages 2–5 are obese and that fast-food consumption by children has increased by 500 percent since 1970. Most observers also accept the data furnished by the U.S. Surgeon General: that obesity in the United States claims some 300,000 lives a year and costs $117 billion in healthcare. The controversy centers on the following questions:

1. Who really is to blame for the increase in obesity among U.S. children?

2. Under current consumer-protection laws, is fast-food marketing aimed at children misleading?

3. Should fast-food restaurants be held legally liable for the health problems associated with their products?

What’s your opinion? If you owned a fast-food restaurant, what action (if any) would you take in response to the charges leveled by critics of your industry?


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