Currently browsing posts about: First Amendment

Sep 10 2012

California judge: Richmond cannot require anti-soda tax group to disclose donors

I’m following the soda tax initiative in Richmond, CA with rapt attention.  Richmond, as I explained last week, is a low-income city with a lot of obesity-related chronic disease and high soda consumption.

Residents will vote on its soda tax initiative in November.  In the meantime, the American Beverage Association has gone to work to spin the science, attack critics, and fund “community coalition” groups to oppose the initiative.

Richmond requires such groups to disclose their top donors on political mailings.  The soda-industry funded “Coalition” went to court to block this requirement on First Amendment grounds.

Now, according to Robert Rogers, the terrific reporter for the Contra Costa Times who has been working on this story, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order doing just that.

Complete victory for our side,” said coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie. “(Judge Charles Breyer) indicated he doesn’t think (the ordinance) applies to us because we are not engaged in independent expenditures. (Breyer) indicated a city can’t require a campaign to publish political arguments under the guise of claiming it is a disclosure.

This will be back in court on September 18.

In the meantime, “Big Soda” is expected to spend more than a million dollars in Richmond to make its efforts look like a local campaign.

Here is the Statement on Ruling on Richmond Mailer Ordinance.

And here are related Contra Costa Times stories on the soda tax initiative.

Feb 9 2012

Should the First Amendment protect the marketing of junk foods to kids?

For some time now, I’ve been arguing that legal scholars ought to be challenging the contention of food corporations that the First Amendment gives them the right to market foods any way they like, even to kids.

I simply cannot believe that the Founding Fathers of the United States intended the First Amendment for this purpose.

In December 2010, I urged public interest lawyers to examine current food marketing practices in the light of the First Amendment.  I am pleased to see that they are now doing so.

Samantha Graff of the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) forwards two co-authored articles published this month:

Health AffairsGovernment Can Regulate Food Advertising to Children Because Cognitive Research Shows It Is Inherently Misleading, by Samantha Graff, Dale Kunkel, and Seth E. Mermin.

The childhood obesity crisis has prompted repeated calls for government action to curb the marketing of unhealthy food to children. Food and entertainment industry groups have asserted that the First Amendment prohibits such regulation.

However, case law establishes that the First Amendment does not protect “inherently misleading” commercial speech. Cognitive research indicates that young children cannot effectively recognize the persuasive intent of advertising or apply the critical evaluation required to comprehend commercial messages.

Given this combination—that government can prohibit “inherently misleading” advertising and that children cannot adequately understand commercial messages—advertising to children younger than age twelve should be considered beyond the scope of constitutional protection.

American Journal of Public Health: Protecting Young People from Junk Food Advertising: Implications of Psychological Research for First Amendment Law, by Jennifer L. Harris and Samantha K. Graff.

In the United States, one third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, yet food and beverage companies continue to target them with advertising for products that contribute to this obesity crisis.

When government restrictions on such advertising are proposed, the constitutional commercial speech doctrine is often invoked as a barrier to action. We explore incongruities between the legal justifications for the commercial speech doctrine and the psychological research on how food advertising affects young people.

These papers are a great start to the conversation, as was a previous contribution from these authors: A Legal Primer for the Obesity Prevention Movement, American Journal of Public Health, 2009.

First Amendment scholars: weigh in, please.

And while pondering these questions, take a look at Raj Patel’s piece in The Atlantic, “Abolish the food industry.”  In his view, the First Amendment issue is a no brainer:

I side with the American Psychological Association in thinking that advertising to children is unconscionable. Rather than dwell on the First Amendment issue, which strikes me as an easy case to make, I think it’s worth addressing a deeper question underlying the San Francisco cigarette-in-pharmacy ban: Why allow an industry that profits from the sale of unhealthy food at all?

Additions, February 14: Michele Simon sends links to additional information about this issue:

http://events.lls.edu/past/food-marketing-lr.html

http://www.appetiteforprofit.com/2011/01/27/why-the-happy-meal-is-already-illegal/

http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/law/FTCFoodMarketingTV_JLME_3.10.pdf

 

Sep 6 2011

The food industry vs. nutrition standards: a First Amendment issue?

I just received a message from Samantha Graff, the director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy, an advocacy group in Oakland, California.

This morning, she writes, 36 legal scholars—including several experts on the First Amendment—weighed in on the food industry’s fight against proposed nutrition standards for foods and beverages marketed directly to children.  This is the very issue I wrote about in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle column and have discussed in previous posts.

In a letter sent this morning to federal agencies, the legal scholars point out that because food and beverage companies are free to ignore the nutrition recommendations, the draft principles “do not restrain or compel anyone’s speech. They are not, in fact, government regulations at all.”

A key industry strategy has been to recruit lawyers to write white papers charging that the proposed nutrition standards violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Recall that Congress asked the FTC to join with the FDA, CDC, and USDA to recommend standards for food products marketed to kids.  These agencies, collectively known as the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG), issued Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts.   This report outlines proposed voluntary standards that have been open for public comment.

My initial reaction: the standards were much too generous.  But that’s not how the food industry sees them.  Food companies realized that the standards exclude large proportions of the junk foods they currently market to kids.

They created a new lobbying group, “Sensible Food Policy Coalition” (shades of George Orwell’s 1984).   This group is doing everything it can to block the proposed standards.   Its website links to white papers opposing the recommendations on First Amendment grounds.

David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, responded to some of these claims in a recent blog post, in which he emphasizes the voluntary nature of the proposals.

I’ve said it before and repeat: I am not a legal scholar but intention seems to matter in legal decisions.  The intent of the First Amendment was to protect political and religious speech. I cannot believe that the intent of the First Amendment was to protect the right of food companies to market junk foods to kids.

Marketing to children is unethical.  It should be stopped.  And it’s the government’s responsibility to do it.

Dec 7 2010

How about reassessing First Amendment “right” to market junk foods?

Food companies insist that they can make health claims for their products, whether backed by science or not, because commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment, in case you have forgotten, says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In a commentary in JAMA earlier this year about front-of-package labeling, David Ludwig and I argued that it was time to take another look at current interpretations of the First Amendment suggesting that free commercial speech is equivalent to free political or religious speech.  Surely, we said, consumers would be better off without front-of-package labels and health claims on food products.

Last month, the British journal Public Health Nutrition published an article by  Timothy Lytton, the Albert and Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School.

His article, “Banning front-of-package food labels: First Amendment constraints on public health policy,” takes issue with our JAMA argument:

In recent months, the FDA has begun a crackdown on misleading nutrition and health claims on the front of food packages by issuing warning letters to manufacturers and promising to develop stricter regulatory standards. Leading nutrition policy experts Marion Nestle and David Ludwig have called for an even tougher approach: a ban on all nutrition and health claims on the front of food packages.

Nestle and Ludwig argue that most of these claims are scientifically unsound and misleading to consumers and that eliminating them would ‘aid educational efforts to encourage the public to eat whole or minimally processed foods and to read the ingredients list on processed foods’.

Nestle and Ludwig are right to raise concerns about consumer protection and public health when it comes to front-of-package food labels, but an outright ban on front-of-package nutrition and health claims would violate the First Amendment. As nutrition policy experts develop efforts to regulate front-of-package nutrition and health claims, they should be mindful of First Amendment constraints on government regulation of commercial speech.

And now, Public Health Nutrition has just published our letter in response to Lytton’s paper.  We say:

In his thoughtful paper about front-of-package food labels, Timothy Lytton states that a ban on such labels would violate First Amendment provisions of the US Constitution. Lytton cites case law to argue that lower courts have consistently interpreted the First Amendment as providing guarantees of free commercial speech.

Indeed they have, and in 2003, the Bush Administration Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stopped defending against misleading health claims cases on First Amendment grounds. We are not lawyers and make no pretense of arguing case law. However, it seems obvious to us that this interpretation of the First Amendment neither follows its original intent, nor promotes the public interest.

The founding fathers clearly intended the First Amendment to guarantee the right of individuals to speak freely about religious and political matters, not the right of food companies to market junk foods to children and adults. Laws are subject to reinterpretation and change, as the history of civil rights legislation makes clear.

That politics influences interpretation of the law at the highest level is evident from the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Bush v. Gore (2000) and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).

We think the time has come for major legal challenges to the right of corporations to mislead the public on the grounds of free speech. The front-of-package health claims controversy demands immediate attention. We hope that legal scholars will examine current food marketing practices in the light of the First Amendment and establish a firm legal basis for bringing this issue back to court. Lytton’s arguments make the need for such reconsideration perfectly evident.

Public interest lawyers: get to work!

Jun 11 2010

Health claims: Should the First Amendment protect bad science?

I keep complaining about the health claims on Enfagrow toddler formula, a sugary product aimed at children from ages one to three:

These claims, for the uninitiated, are a special kind called structure-function.  Congress authorized such claims when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994.

Structure-function claims do not say that the product can prevent or treat disease. They merely suggest that the product can help in some unspecified way with some structure or function of the body.

When Congress passed DSHEA, it meant the claims to apply to dietary supplements, not foods. Enfagrow is marketed as a food, not a supplement.  It displays a Nutrition Facts label, not a Supplement Facts label.

Over the years, the FDA has issued cease-and-desist warnings about foods that bear structure-function claims.  In recent years, it has simply stated that manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that the claims are “truthful and not misleading.”

One reason for the shift is what the Courts have ruled.  The Courts say that structure-function claims are protected by First Amendment guarantees of free speech.  The most recent case is Alliance for Natural Health USA v. Sebelius. As described in Food Chemical News (June 7), a D.C. District Court judge ruled that the FDA cannot deny health claims that link selenium supplements to reduced risk of several diseases, or require those claims to be qualified, just because the claims lack adequate scientific substantiation.

In other words, supplement makers can say anything they want to about the benefits of their products—on the grounds of free commercial speech—whether or not science backs up the claim.

Recently, the FDA issued a warning letter to Nestlé, the maker of a Juicy Juice product aimed at toddlers, which displays a claim that its content of added omega-3 DHA improves brain development.  The FDA did not take on the claim, even though research seems unlikely to find that such drinks have any special benefits for brain development.  Instead, the FDA focused on a technicality:

The product makes claims such as “no sugar added,” which are not allowed on products intended for children under 2 yrs of age because appropriate dietary levels have not been established for children in this age range.

I’m guessing—this is speculation—that the FDA is reluctant to take on Enfagrow’s brain or immunity claims because Mead-Johnson has deep pockets and might well be willing to fight this one in court as a First Amendment case.

I am not a lawyer but I thought that intent mattered in legal cases.  Surely, the intent of the founding fathers in creating the First Amendment was to protect the right of individual citizens to speak freely about their political and religious beliefs.  Surely, their intent had nothing to do with protecting the rights of supplement, food, and drug corporations to claim benefits for unproven remedies, or to promote sales of sugary foods to babies.

I think it is time to give these First Amendment issues some serious thought.  How about:

  • FDA: Fire those lawyers and hire some who will protect the FDA’s ability to use science in its decisions.
  • FTC: Take a look a the immunity claim on the Enfagrow Vanilla toddler formula, now that the Chocolate is off the market.
  • Legal scholars: Surely there are ways to protect real First Amendment rights while restricting unsubstantiated health claims?

Other ideas are most welcome.  Your thoughts?