The instructor, law professor John Banzhaf, is already well known for requiring his law students – whom the press has dubbed "Banzhaf's Bandits" – to bring legal actions in order to pass his law school course in Public Interest Law. But now he will be carrying his activist philosophy one step further by assigning homework in which undergrads will have to file a real legal document aimed at a major social problem – something which he suggests might be a first for any university
But, he contends, it’s fully consistent with George Washington University's advertised claims: “Your Four years at GWU Can Change the Course of History” and "Faculty and Students Don’t Just Study the World – They Work to Change It."
In lecturing on Food & Politics, he will discuss how fast foods and sugary soft drinks are a major cause of obesity, and how he, his law students, and others have been so successful in using legal and other governmental actions as weapons against this growing and very expensive epidemic, just as in the past he was able to use legal and other governmental action so effectively against the problem of smoking.
That's why, he will remind the students, the media has called him "a Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars," "a Major Crusader Against Big Tobacco and Now Among Those Targeting the Food Industry," and "The Man Big Tobacco and Now Fast Food Love to Hate."
To demonstrate that even undergraduates can likewise have a significant impact on public health problems, students in the standing-room-
Banzhaf will explain how at least ten fat law suits have already been successful, including the one targeting McDonald’s brought by his law students, which started the new movement to use governmental action as a powerful but largely untapped weapon against obesity.
In that class action law suit against McDonald's, the fast food chain was forced to pay over $12 million, to apologize to the students, and to add the disclosures to correct the misrepresentations it was accused of making. It also helped to inspire the award-winning movie “Super Size Me” in which Banzhaf appeared, and which in turn pressured McDonald’s to eliminate supersizing.
Prof. Banzhaf will also provide examples of other actions by non-law students, including even high school students and housewives, which have helped protect the public health.
As a result of the other fat law suits Banzhaf helped inspire or encourage, Kellogg Company has adopted nutrition standards for the foods it advertises to young children; New York City banned all sugary soft drinks, and most fattening foods, from its classrooms; major bottlers like Coke and Pepsi have been forced to agree to virtually ban the sale of sugary soft drinks in schools, especially during school hours; KFC has removed trans fats from its foods, a move which apparently results in fewer fat calories; and McDonald's abandoned supersizing.
The new legal movement also helped galvanize public pressure for new legislation:
Banzhaf says that asking undergraduate students to undertake a real world project, rather than just writing another academic research paper, is consistent with the University's advertised claims that: "Research at GWU is at the Intersection of Policy and Practice” and that “At GW, Politics is Not a Spectator Sport . . . Here, a Stroke of Genius Can Become a Stroke of a President’s Pen.”
It also follows, he says, from the motto of the course itself: “We’ve always been told NOT to play with our food - At GW, We’re taught to change the world with it.”
He also suggests that homework assignments to do something in the real world are far better than the typical requirement to simply write a paper. Students are more likely to become interested and engaged by doing something real, and society will be better able to benefit from their new ideas.
In response to critics, Banzhaf notes that the students will not have to lobby in favor of the NYC-type ban on large servings of sugary soft drinks, although most probably will choose that option. They may also lobby for other ways to deal with the major impact sugary soft drinks have on obesity. For example:
■ Ban the sale of sugary soft drinks entirely
■ Ban the sale of sugary soft drinks to children
■ Put a special tax on sugary soft drinks; e.g., to reduce consumption and/or to fund counterads
■ Don’t exempt sugary soft drinks from the ordinary sales tax
■ Prohibit the sale of sugary soft drinks in vending machines
■ Mandate per-oz. pricing of sugary soft drinks in venues like fast food restaurants and movie theaters (i.e., a 32 oz. serving must cost at least twice as much as a 16 oz. serving)
■ Limit the maximum size for sugary soft drinks in venues like fast food restaurants and movie theaters (e.g., a single serving can be no more than 16 oz.).
The homework assignment also permits the students to “ask the legislators to address another food-related problem other than obesity (e.g., food safety, availability, etc.).”
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
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Washington, DC 20052, USA
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