September 11, 1997

September 11, 1997 | Commentary on Legal Issues

ED091197c: Suing Elsie The Cow 

We have a wonderful neighborhood bakery -- Shuman's -- in "Old Town" Alexandria, Va., where I live. It's the morning hangout for all of Old Town's old-timers. Recently, just as I was shoving one of Shuman's pastries into my face, I thought, "Wait a minute. I should sue this place." I looked down at my waistline, and it all came to me in a flash of dollar signs: "It's Shuman's fault that I'm heftier than I would like to be."

Just kidding, of course. But this idea reminds me of a recent Associated Press (AP) wire story about a 61-year-old Seattle man who's suing the Safeway supermarket chain and the Dairy Farmers of Washington. Why? Because, he claims, his recent stroke was caused by his addiction to milk.

To quote the AP story: "I drank milk like some people drink beer or water, probably," said the confessed "milk-a-holic." "I've always loved a nice glass of milk, and I've drank a lot of it."

The confessed milk-a-holic, Norman Mayo, claims in his lawsuit that his human plumbing was clogged by the fat in the milk, causing his stroke. "If tobacco products can be required to have warning labels, why not dairy products?" he asked. "I think milk is just as dangerous as tobacco."

Sure, Mr. Mayo, and while we're at it, why not sue the makers of Twinkies and HoHos and Milk Duds? Next thing you know, we'll have to show an ID to buy a bag of M&Ms.

Don't laugh. That certainly seems to be the direction our nanny state is taking us. Fewer and fewer people seem willing these days to take responsibility for their own behavior or to accept the fact, sad as it is, that every ill that befalls us isn't necessarily a consequence of somebody else's negligence.

Respiratory trouble? Blame the tobacco ogres. Clogged arteries? Blame Elsie, the milk cow. Overweight? Blame the white-haired ladies who dish out the goodies at Shuman's or the Hostess cupcake people. Auto accident? Blame the liquor companies. Or the auto makers -- because their cars can crash!

A few days after the AP story moved on the wire, Joyce Price reported in the Washington Times that two Yale University researchers, psychology Professor Kelly D. Brownell and graduate student E. Katherine Battle, were proposing, in an article in the journal Addictive Behavior, that the government impose a "fat tax" on food to discourage people from eating anything but organic bean sprouts and field-grown grass. (I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture.)

Brownell, director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, blasted the food industry for promoting a diet "high in fat, high in calories, delicious, widely available and low in cost." Quick -- call the cops!

To some degree, of course, Brownell is correct. As anyone who has met me knows, these are exactly the kinds of foods I like the best -- especially the delicious part, like Shuman's cinnamon buns. And, on occasion, the yummy stuff gets the better of me and I have to go back on the wagon.

But to imply that our cravings for things we enjoy are simply a product of advertising and "marketing" is to place humans on the level of animals, helpless to act contrary to our physical appetites. If that's true, then the constant barrage of healthy life-style advice we get from Reader's Digest, television, the women's magazines, the American Council on Science and Health, and a hundred other sources is useless.

So long as we pursue this nutty line of reasoning -- that everybody else is responsible for our actions and their consequences -- we will invite the government to intrude further and further into every detail of our daily lives. Thus, while the current government crusade against tobacco may be morally satisfying to many, it portends ominously for the future.

I eat what I eat because I enjoy it. I drink what I drink because I like it. I smoke what I smoke -- cigars -- because I want to. I accept responsibility for the consequences as the price of living in a free country.

The more we refuse to pay this price, the more our freedoms will slip away.

* * *

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute. Additional information about The Heritage Foundation can be found on the World Wide Web (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Legal Issues