US: Soda Lawsuit Aims to Take Fizz Out of “Misleading Marketing”

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14 Jul 2017 --- A US lawsuit has been filed accusing Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association of obscuring the link between drinking sugar-packed sodas and obesity as well as other health problems.

The plaintiffs claim that despite the scientifically established link between consuming sugary drinks and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, the Coca-Cola Company and its trade association deny there is a connection to consuming soda.

The action has been filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia by Reverend William H Lamar IV, pastor of the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC; Reverend Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD; and the Praxis Project, a non-profit organization focused on building healthier communities.  Praxis had brought, but soon withdrew, similar litigation against Coke and the ABA in California pending the addition of the new plaintiffs.

“For far too long, Coca-Cola has been convincing people, including children, that soda is a source of fun and happiness and that it is safe to drink,” said Rev. Coates.  

“But from my vantage point, Coca-Cola is devastating the African American community by fueling an epidemic of obesity and an epidemic of type 2 diabetes.  I visit hospitals and homes, and officiate at funerals. I routinely encounter blindness, loss of limbs, strokes, and even death.”

“Efforts to talk about the role of sugar drinks and advertising in these epidemics, including many of my own efforts – are hampered by the effects of Coca-Cola’s deceptive marketing.”

The lawsuit quotes Coca-Cola statement that “there is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity” as representative of the kind of deception that Coke and the ABA publicly engage in. 

Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is linked scientifically not only to obesity but also to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, and many other prominent medical and health authorities all acknowledge such links.

“When industry wanted to sell more cigarettes, it used powerful advertising to make smoking seem glamorous, and it tried to muddy the waters and make it seem as if smoking’s link to lung cancer were in doubt,” said Rev. Lamar.  

“Soda might not be smoking, but the tactics of the companies are strikingly similar to me: Market heavily. Cast doubt on science. People need and deserve to know the facts about soda consumption. They need to know that the beautiful bodies seen in Coke commercials are not the norm for regular soda drinkers.”

Coca-Cola and the ABA’s larger advertising campaign attacks the science while promoting lack of exercise as the primary driver of obesity and related epidemics.  

The ABA wrote that “the anti-soda campaign misleads people with unsound science,” and that “[A]ll calories are the same regardless of food source,” according to the complaint.  

Coke also paid health professionals to promote sugar-sweetened beverages on the Internet, including one dietitian blogger who suggested that an eight-ounce soda could be a healthy snack, like “packs of almonds,” according to the complaint. 

“We need to put permanent protections into place that protect kids’ health by shielding them from Coke’s omnipresent and deceptive marketing,” adds Praxis Project executive director Xavier Morales.  

“It seems to me that Coke plays the long game and wants to hook consumers young. But its marketing and advertising are putting too many Americans, especially children and teens of color – who are twice as likely to see an advertisement for soda – on a trajectory that includes obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Maia Kats, litigation director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest; Andrew Rainer and Mark Gottlieb of the Public Health Advocacy Institute; Daniel B. Edelman of the law firm Katz Marshall and Banks, LLP; and Michael R. Reese of the law firm Reese LLP.  

The suit seeks an injunction under the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which protects district residents from improper trade practices. Such an injunction would stop Coke and the ABA from engaging in the unfair and deceptive marketing of sugar-sweetened drinks –including any direct or implied claim that the drinks do not promote obesity, type 2 diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. 

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