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Lawmaker's meal deal: no obesity lawsuits
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As he critized obesity lawsuits as "frivolous", Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, stood next to a table covered with McDonald's salads, ice cream bars, giant soda bottles and a cheese spread. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP)- A rural lawmaker wants Minnesota to bar obese people from suing restaurants and food manufacturers for contributing to the supersizing of their waistlines.

No such lawsuits have been filed in Minnesota, but Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he's worried about the impact they might have on farmers and food companies. "Vilifying hamburgers ultimately hurts the beef producers," he said.

Most of the attention on similar bills has focused on food sellers, especially fast food restaurants. But Urdahl's bill would also give immunity to food manufacturers for any lawsuits related to a person's obesity.

"Such lawsuits fail to acknowledge the role of the individual consumer in their own weight gain," he said in a news conference on the Capitol lawn Tuesday. A host of food industry lobbyists stood behind him, right next to a table full of McDonalds salads, 20-ounce bottles of Pepsi and a cheese spread.

Urdahl's central-Minnesota district includes two food processors, which he said amplified his interest.

Attorney Joseph Price, who defends companies from large-scale lawsuits, said people are following the same path they followed in launching lawsuits against tobacco companies. But he said the logic isn't the same.

"If it's an addiction question, we all have to eat to one degree or another," he said, noting that obesity and related illnesses come from a variety of causes ranging from lack of exercise to genetics.

But Peter Riley, president of the Minnesota Trial Lawyer's Association, said the bill isn't needed.

"This is a solution in search of a problem," he said. He added that the the bill is so broadly written it could impede lawsuits over unrelated food safety issues.

The Minnesota bill was announced too late to go through the Legislature's normal process, but Urdahl said he'll try to amend it to other bills in the coming weeks. Urdahl said he decided to pursue it in part because a related national effort is faltering.

The U.S. House voted last month to ban such class action lawsuits, but the U.S. Senate hasn't shown much interest.

Nationwide, there have been relatively few lawsuits on the issue and most have been dismissed or settled. The lawsuits have, however, attracted a great deal of attention and they come amid a national debate over obesity as a leading cause of preventable death.

Louisiana passed similar state legislation. Nineteen other state legislatures - Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin - have considered similar bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Last month, Wisconsin's Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill to do the same thing.

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