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John Francis Banzhaf III
Born July 2, 1940 (1940-07-02) (age 69)
New York City
Education BSEE, J.D.
Alma mater Stuyvesant High School
Columbia University Law School
Occupation Professor
Employer George Washington University Law School
Known for litigation

John Francis Banzhaf III (pronounced /ˈbænz.hɑːf/[1]) (born July 2, 1940) is a legal activist and a law professor at George Washington University Law School. He is the founder of the US smoking pressure group Action on Smoking and Health.[2] He is noted for his advocacy of, and use of, lawsuits as a method to promote the public interest.


Life and Education

Banzhaf was born July 2, 1940 in New York City. He graduated from Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School at the age of 15, worked for a year with an electrical engineering firm, then entered MIT where he received his BSEE degree in 1962. He had already published several papers in electrical engineering and been awarded several patents. A few months after graduation he entered Columbia University Law School, intending to specialize in patent law. He graduated with a JD degree in 1965.[2]

After doing some research and law clerk work, he became an associate with the patent-law firm Watson, Leavenworth, Kelton & Taggart. In 1968 he was appointed associate professor at the National Law Center (since renamed George Washington University Law School) of George Washington University, and was promoted to full professor with tenure in 1971.[2]



Copyright law

Banzhaf got an early start in legal activism. While still a student in law school, he was assigned to research and draft a note for the Columbia Law Review[3] on whether computer programs and other software could be protected under U.S. copyright law. The United States Patent Office had previously declined to grant any patents on software, and no computer program copyrights had ever been recognized. As part of his research, Banzhaf sought to register copyrights on two programs he had written: one in printed form, and the other recorded on magnetic tape. In 1964, he convinced the U.S. Copyright Office to officially register his two copyrights,[4] thereby recognizing for the first time the validity of this new form of legal protection.[5]

One year later, he testified at a congressional hearing at which he urged - ultimately successfully - that the long-awaited revision of U.S. copyright law should expressly recognize computer and data processing issues.[6]


Banzhaf has utilized a clinical-project format in some of his law classes, rather than a more traditional lecture and academic study format. Students are divided into teams and asked to work on some genuine consumer problems.[2]:33

One of the students' high-profile projects was a suit against former Vice-President Spiro Agnew seeking to force him to repay the bribes he accepted while Governor of Maryland. Agnew was ordered to repay the state the $147,500 in kickbacks, with interest of $101,235, for a total of $248,735. The project was started in 1976 by three students in Banzhaf's class on public interest law. The students recruited three Maryland residents to carry the suit. [7]

Another case that attracted much attention targeted the McDonald's restaurant chain. One of Banzhaf's students, James Pizzirusso, successfully sued McDonald's in 2001 for precooking their french fries in beef fat and not warning vegetarians and beef-avoiders about it; in 2002 he won a class-action settlement of $12.5 million.[8]


Much of Banzhaf's tobacco work has been done through the US non-profit group Action on Smoking and Health, which he founded in 1967.[2]

Banzhaf's first tobacco project was to present an "equal time" theory of cigarette advertising to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC's fairness doctrine required broadcasters to provide free air time to opposing views of matters of public controversy. Banzhaf argued that tobacco advertisements were only showing one side of the story, and that as a public service the broadcast media should be required to show an equal number of anti-smoking messages. The FCC agreed, although they only required a ratio of one anti-smoking message for each four cigarette advertisements rather than the one-to-one ratio that Banzhaf had asked for. The tobacco industry appealed this decision, but it was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. [2]:32[9]:267–268[10]:304–308

The tobacco industry eventually countered the flood of anti-smoking messages by voluntarily offering to stop advertising on television completely, if they were made immune from antitrust action (for taking this concerted action) and in exchange for restrictions on the warning labels that appear on cigarette packages and in advertising. Television tobacco ads went off the air at the end of 1970, as did the free anti-smoking ads. Much of the cigarette advertising money shifted to print media.[9]:271–272[10]:327–335

Banzhaf and ASH next turned their attention to passive smoking.[9]:287–288 This started a fight for local and state smoking ban ordinances that is still ongoing today. In 1969 Ralph Nader petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to ban smoking on all flights, and Banzhaf petitioned the FAA to require separate smoking and nonsmoking sections on domestic flights. Passive smoking at that time was thought to be only a nuisance and not a health hazard, and they were not able to get any action from the FAA. In 1972 they switched their attention to the Civil Aeronautics Board, who were more receptive and ordered the separate sections. Compliance was weak, and ASH sued the CAB in 1979 asking for better enforcement. When the Reagan administration came into office in 1981 even the weak CAB measures were rolled back.[10]:373–374


In recent years Banzhaf has switched his attention to obesity, prompted by a 2001 Surgeon General's report on the subject.[11] In 2002 he filed a product liability suit against McDonald's, claiming that they contribute to childhood obesity through false advertising.[8]

In 2003 Banzhaf began agitating against what he calls "Cokes for Kickbacks" contracts (known more formally as "pouring rights"), where local school districts contract with soft-drink companies to place vending machines in the schools and receive a commission on the proceeds. He believes such contracts are an important contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic.[8][12]

Banzhaf likens the obesity problem to the tobacco problem, saying, [13]:91

The problem of passing litigation over the objections of a very powerful industry with a big pocketbook is exactly what we faced with Big Tobacco and smoking....I and every one of the attorneys and public health experts I'm working with would much rather see this go through legislation then [sic] litigation. Our motto is, 'If the legislators don't legislate, then the litigators will litigate.'

Banzhaf was one of the interviewees in the 2004 film Super Size Me and made several brief appearances in that film, including a scene of Banzhaf and director Morgan Spurlock eating at McDonald's.

Work on voting systems

Banzhaf did some work in weighted voting systems while he was still in law school.[2] He is the inventor of the Banzhaf power index, which analyzes weighted voting systems according to their members' abilities to force quorums.


There has been much criticism of Banzhaf's work and of Banzhaf personally.

Many critics are uneasy about his use of litigation. Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a food trade group, said, "He's using the judicial process for PR value."[14] George Landrith, president of the conservative think tank Frontiers of Freedom Institute said "He's abusing the court system".[8]

Banzhaf has been accused of ignoring or destroying the concept of personal responsibility. For example, in 2006 Ezra Levant wrote in the National Post, "Banzhaf was the health-law strategist who destroyed the concept of personal responsibility when it came to smoking."[15] But Banzhaf denies that there has been any loss of personal responsibility. He was quoted in 2003 in the Hartford Courant saying, [11]

Is there a sudden loss of personal responsibility? No—because we would see it in other areas: sudden increases in drunkenness, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse deaths. Clearly there is no decline in personal responsibility.

Writer Richard Kluger is critical of Banzhaf's organizational skills, saying that he has failed to build up ASH as a strong organization because he was unwilling to share the spotlight with others, and that ASH was a vehicle for Banzhaf to make appearances before Congress and on television.[10]:310,506

Adrian Brune, writing in 2005 in American Lawyer, said that Banzhaf's chief legal foe is the Frontiers of Freedom Institute's George Landrith.[8] A few years ago the Institute launched a web site,, devoted to recording all available information about Banzhaf and his activities.[8] The site's slogan was "Keeping an eye on the man who wants to sue America". The site went inactive in mid-2006,[16] and the Institute may have lost interest in Banzhaf.

Reason, a libertarian magazine, gives Banzhaf much critical attention. For example, in a 2002 article, Charles Paul Freund wrote that Banzhaf did not win any victories over the tobacco companies, that he specializes in "using the courts to hurt relatively powerless people," and that the issue for Banzhaf is "the terrifying possibility that somewhere there are people enjoying themselves." [17]

Pro-smoking websites and blogs such as FORCES[18] carry much critical comment about Banzhaf.

Recently, the anti Banzhaf website reopened. Originally known as, it was taken offline back in 2006, resurfacing in 2009, although no longer run by Frontiers of Freedom Institute.

See also


  1. ^ "GW Law Profiles - John F. Banzhaf III". George Washington University Law School. Retrieved 2008-08-02.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Banzhaf, John F(rancis), 3d". Current Biography Yearbook. H. W. Wilson. 1973. pp. 30–33.  
  3. ^ Banzhaf, John. "Copyright Protection for Computer Programs." 64 Colum. L. Rev. 1274 (1964)
  4. ^ "Computer Program Copyrighted for First Time; Columbia Law Student Gets Approval For Plans – Sees Wide Industry Impact." New York Times: May 8, 1964.
  5. ^ "The Law Professor Behind: ASH, SOUP, PUMP and CRASH." New York Times: August 23, 1970.
  6. ^ Hearings on H.R. 4347, H.R. 5680, H.R. 6831 and H.R. 6835 before Subcomm. No. 3 of the House Comm. on the Judiciary, 89th Cong., 1st Sess. 1144-50 (statement and testimony of John F. Banzhaf III), 1898-99.
  7. ^ Franklin, Ben A. (1981-04-28). "Court says Agnew took bribes; orders repayment". New York Times.  
  8. ^ a b c d e f Brune, Adrian (July 2005). "Class Action: A litigious law professor preps for fight over soda sales at schools". American Lawyer 27 (7): 33–34. ISSN 0162-3397.  
  9. ^ a b c Brandt, Allan M. (2007). The Cigarette Century: the Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. ISBN 9780465070473.  
  10. ^ a b c d Kluger, Richard (1997). Ashes to Ashes: American's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 9780375700361.  
  11. ^ a b Buck, Rinker (2003-07-13). "George Washington University Professor Wages Legal War on 'Obesity Crisis'". Hartford Courant. ISSN 1047-4153.  
  12. ^ Keith, Ervin (2003-07-02). "School Board is warned against Coke contract". Seattle Times. ISSN 0745-9696. Retrieved 2008-08-10.  
  13. ^ Spurlock, Morgan (2005). Don't Eat This Book. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0399152601.  
  14. ^ Sachdev, Ameet (2008-01-03). "Obesity case ruling whets appetite of food activist". Chicago Tribune. ISSN 1085-6706. Retrieved 2008-08-10.  
  15. ^ Levant, Ezra (2006-01-06). "The killjoys' next target". National Post. ISSN 1486-8008. Retrieved 2008-08-10.  
  16. ^ "archive of". Internet Archive Wayback Machine.*/ Retrieved 2008-08-09.  
  17. ^ Freund, Charles Paul (December 2002). "Stuffed Face: One man's war on pleasure". Reason: 12–13. ISSN 0048-6906.  
  18. ^ "The FORCES International Liberty News Network". FORCES International. Retrieved 2008-08-10.  


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