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In a statement released last week Gov. John Baldacci alerted Mainers to the alarming rate of obesity among Maine kids. According to the governor, 30 percent of Maine youths are either obese or overweight, presenting a major health problem that the state must address. The number of obese or overweight young Mainers has doubled over the past 15 years, ranking Maine as the highest obese/overweight rate of the New England states. But Mainers are not the only ones facing this public health risk. The United States as a whole and many other industrialized nations are grappling with tough questions about public health and the legal issues that accompany the regulation of individual choices about what to eat.

One of the main problems is that, while adults are generally able to weigh the costs and benefits and make their own decisions about what to eat, kids end up at the mercy of whatever they are served by their parents or school lunch program, and it’s during this time when lifelong habits are developed.

In a recent paper titled Legal Themes Concerning Obesity Regulation in the United States, the authors highlight the various ways that the FDA, the USDA, school lunch programs, non-profits, parents, kids, lawyers, lawmakers, and corporations are responding to the obesity crisis.

They write:

"Litigation in the pursuit of some sort of compensation for obese consumers is increasingly seen as a viable option in the U.S. Cases have been brought against the food industry claiming that it engaged in deceptive practices, inadequately disclosed health risks, or mislead consumers through its advertisements…. A widely-reported case of persons seeking compensation for obesity-related injuries is Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp. In 2002, the parents of two obese minors filed a complaint against McDonald’s Corporation in New York State alleging deceptive practices, negligence, and failure to warn consumers of the harms of ingesting food at McDonald’s restaurants."

Whether we see healthy eating as a social issue, a personal choice, or a matter of corporate responsibility, most of us can agree that kids, at the very least, deserve the option of eating healthy food and should be educated about how their choices affect their health.

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