Washington — Attorneys are suing McDonald's because their meals, high in saturated fat, are ruining customers' health. It is the right complaint, but the wrong venue. Since the days of Prohibition, we have understood - or should have understood - that the government should be wary when it attempts to legislate personal behavior, whether the issue is the use of alcohol, smoking or saturated fat.
Excesses, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, certainly must be regulated. But how can the government regulate the consumption of saturated fat? And a lawsuit that is successful in penalizing companies for making foods high in saturated fat has the effect of law. There is a better way.
The surgeon general issued a warning that cigarette smoking could be hazardous to your health, and it is prominently placed on all cigarette cartons and packages. Public service ads are frequently run on television warning about the evils of tobacco, and laws are multiplying across the country that ban smoking in enclosed public areas. The idea of excluding tobacco use in certain areas is proper government regulation. The prohibition of tobacco use would not be.
Saturated fats, like tobacco, cause serious health problems, most notably in the clogging of arteries, better known as heart disease. One study conducted on the American soldiers who died during the Korean War showed that many of the men had partially blocked arteries before they were even out of their teens, a scientific commentary on the notoriously poor American diet. It is a diet that has improved, but mostly because the public has engaged in extensive self-education about food products, and because healthy eating is adequately taught in schools or is promoted by government programs. One reason for this is that 65 used to be considered the beginning of old age. This is no longer the case, and people have become more aware that this is a result of better diets.
Most food products are labeled, indicating the number of grams of saturated fat in one serving, but the public has never been officially warned about the problem. There are no warning labels about saturated fat on food products - another proper use of government activity - and there are no public service commercials on television concerning the problem. So it does little good to label packages in the absence of a program to educate the public.
Dr. Dean Ornish, the famous heart-patient guru, has been waging a campaign to provide such education, but his is one lone voice, unsupported by the surgeon general or any other government organization. He claims - and we can attest - that his regimen of foods low in saturated fat can actually reverse heart disease.
He is aided in his crusade by companies such as Subway, which advertises some of its sandwiches as being low in saturated fat. It even goes so far as to post comparisons with McDonald's in its restaurants.
In the end, it is better to legislate sparingly and educate profusely. Life is a matter of choices, and every citizen should be properly educated so he or she can make informed decisions. And when people make informed choices, there is little room for attorneys to claim fault with the cigarette makers, the alcohol companies and the food companies that produce products high in saturated fat.
Prediction: The surgeon general will eventually acknowledge the health risks posed by saturated fats and commence a campaign to warn the public accordingly. Food products high in saturated fat will bear warning labels similar to those contained on cigarette packages. Television commercials will regularly expose the threat saturated fat poses to public health.