US Lawyer John Banzhaf Was the First to Sue the Tobacco Companies in the mid-Sixties. Now He Wants to Prosecute the Junk-Food Industry for Making Americans Obese
by Andrew Gumbel
John Banzhaf likes to pose this challenge to students who enroll in his graduate class on legal activism at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. Think of something that really irritates you or smacks of obvious civil injustice, he tells them. Then think of a way of using the law to right the wrong and seek redress.
In other words, as Professor Banzhaf himself puts it with the freewheeling candor we have come to expect from both heroes and villains in the American legal system, let's sue the bastards.
It's a unique approach to legal education that has had some astonishing results down the years. Banzhaf's students successfully forced the stuffy Washington Cosmos Club to admit women for the first time, and got dry-cleaners to stop charging women more than men for laundering their shirts. Back in the 1970s, they sued Spiro Agnew, the Vice-President who left office in disgrace shortly before his boss, Richard Nixon, forcing him to return the bribes he had received.
Most famously, Banzhaf pioneered the notion of suing tobacco companies for the deleterious health consequences of smoking. He started doing it in the mid-1960s, when everyone thought he was nuts, and he was still doing it in 1998 when the US states successfully pried hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Big Five tobacco companies as compensation for their smoking-related health-care costs. If tobacco advertising is now banned on television, and smoking no longer tolerated on planes or in shops and restaurants in many parts of the United States, it is largely due to Banzhaf's 35 years of campaigning and savvy application of public-interest law.
And now, he has a new target: the junk-food industry. America, as we all know, is the fattest nation on... [continues]
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