The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently issued a summary of an October 21, 2010, workshop titled “Legal Strategies in Childhood Obesity Prevention,” where public policy experts and stakeholders discussed national, state and local health initiatives that employ legal strategies “to bring about change as well as the challenges in implementing these changes.” The workshop summary reflects attendees’ views on various topics, including (i) the potential of legal strategies to address childhood obesity; (ii) how legal strategies have been used in other public health areas, such as firearm injury prevention; (iii) actions by the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal agencies; (iv) food industry perspectives; (v) whether regulations and taxes can prevent obesity; (vi) legal approaches to increase physical activity in communities; (vii) the use of litigation to effect policy changes; and (viii) the role of attorneys general and local public health agencies.  

More specifically, workshop chair Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, reviewed legal approaches that could “hold great promise for greatly accelerating progress,” citing FDA’s decision to end the Smart Choices food labeling program developed by industry and lawsuits disputing the immunity health claims for certain breakfast cereals. As Public Health Advocacy Institute Executive Director Mark Gottlieb noted, however, “litigation is a blunt tool for policy change,” whereas regulation and legislation offer “much more direct and conventional means of achieving specific public health policy goals.” According to Gottlieb, the use of litigation to reduce smoking became a “last resort” in the absence of effective policies. “But the situation is somewhat different with food,” he said. “Progress is being made on various fronts, although perhaps not as rapidly as people would like. In the case of food, litigation may be a valuable complement to rather than a replacement for legislation, regulation, and industry change.”  

Presenters at the workshop also concluded that “reauthorization of several critical bills… will provide unparalleled opportunities to change policies that affect food consumption and obesity in the United States,” especially as federal agencies ramp up efforts to address youth marketing and standardize front-of-package labeling. “From the national legislative perspective, there are some very important opportunities in front of us,” reiterated William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the workshop’s closing remarks. “Because obesity prevention is a new field, funds are needed for evaluation, not just for action. Only through evaluation can we learn what works.”