updated 3/10/2004 3:39:02 PM ET 2004-03-10T20:39:02

The House moved Wednesday to stop lawyers from pinning the blame for America's obesity crisis on fast-food and other restaurants in supersized lawsuits that Republicans say could bankrupt the food industry.

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The congresssional debate came a day after the government said eating too much could soon replace smoking as the No. 1 preventable cause of death. Two out of three adults and 9 million children are overweight or obese, the report said.

Fast-food franchises and mom-and-pop restaurants shouldn't take the blame for that when Americans make the choice to eat badly and not exercise, House Republicans said. "Americans are eating themselves to death and looking for someone to blame," said Rep. David Dreier of California.

Exposing the American food industry — which employs almost 12 million people and is the nation's second largest employer behind the government — to lawsuits like those used against the tobacco industry could wreck the economy and increase the price of eating out, Republicans said.

"Food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person's consumption of legal, unadulterated food and a person's weight gain or obesity," the White House said in a statement supporting the GOP bill.

Democrats called the bill a Republican political ploy aimed at hurting trial lawyers and helping the multibillion dollar food business.

Most obesity claims have been dismissed in court. Last year, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action lawsuits blaming McDonald's for making people fat.

"It protects an industry that doesn't need to be protected at this particular point and we're dealing with a problem that doesn't exist," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. "The problem that does exist is that we have an obesity problem in this country."

Restaurants and snack food makers have announced plans to offer a larger number of more healthful products, and McDonald's has announced it will end Supersize fries and drinks except for special promotions in its more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants by year's end.

A poor diet and physical inactivity caused 400,000 deaths in 2000, a 33 percent jump over 1990, Tuesday's government report said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., would prohibit many obesity or weight-related claims against the food industry. It would still allow claims to go forward if state or federal laws had been broken and as a result a person gained weight.

Democrats accused the GOP of wanting to let companies do whatever they want with no liability.

"Only with this Republican leadership would an effort to promote personal responsibility begin with allowing companies to be irresponsible without accountability," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

The Senate is not expected to pass the legislation this year, although Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., has introduced a companion bill.

Louisiana has passed similar state legislation. Nineteen other state legislatures — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — were considering similar bills as of March 1, the National Conference of State Legislatures said Wednesday.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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