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WSU Economist Says Fast Food Actions Speak Louder than Words

PULLMAN, Wash. — McDonald’s this week announced a new advertising campaign emphasizing the healthiest of its offerings, but a Washington State University economist says actions speak louder than words.

“If McDonald’s was really concerned about the health of their customers, they would change their menu, not just their ads,” said Trent Smith, assistant professor in the WSU School of Economic Sciences. In fact, he notes, the new campaign is a “distraction from the real issue – the menu.”

Smith said no advertising campaign compensates for the high glycemic load or level of trans-fatty acids still inherent in fast food offerings.

“The nutrition problem is at the level of the entire fast food industry, not just McDonald’s,” he added. “Adding extra choices that don’t sell is not going to promote good health in the end.”

Smith, who recently authored a paper entitled “The McDonald’s Equilibrium: Advertising, Empty Calories, and the Endogenous Determination of Dietary Preferences,” said the same lawyers who successfully pressed tobacco companies into taking responsibility for the effects of their products are working on lawsuits against the fast food industry.

“According to these attorneys, the suits against fast food are proceeding exactly like the tobacco suits did – only faster,” Smith said. “The tobacco suits established the legal test – if a food company knows more than the average consumer can be expected to know about the effects of its products, then the company can be held liable.”

The best consumer defense is still education, Smith said. “The only real solution is to learn the nutrition science, so you can understand what it is you’re really eating when you go to a fast food restaurant.”

He also said that the fast food industry may find new, better ways to offer healthy products. “It is not unthinkable that McDonald’s could develop healthy milkshakes, sandwiches and fries. There’s no reason the technology couldn’t go that direction.”

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