Coca-Cola Accused Of Illegally Misleading Consumers About Sugary Drinks

Image courtesy of Patrick

In a new federal lawsuit, public health advocates accuse Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association of engaging in a “pattern of deception to mislead and confuse the public” and waging an “aggressive campaign of disinformation about the health consequences of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages.”

The lawsuit [PDF] cites numerous studies pointing to a link between over-consumption of sugar and health problems — like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes — and data indicating that sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading source added sugar in the American diet. It then goes on to demonstrate what the plaintiffs allege is a misinformation campaign orchestrated by Coca-Cola and the beverage industry.

“As part of this misrepresentation, Coca-Cola executives and agents misleadingly sought to divert focus from sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to a purported lack of exercise as the explanation for the rise in obesity-related chronic conditions,” reads the complaint, “despite the fact that they knew this explanation was not scientifically sound.”

In a 2012 interview with USA Today, a senior Coca-Cola exec claimed that “There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity” and the company pointed out that consumption of sugary drinks was on the decline as America’s obesity rate rose.

Around this same time, Coca-Cola was also helping to create and fund the Global Energy Balance Network, a now-defunct organization that was presented as being an unbiased proponent of a balance between diet and exercise, but which was later shown to be getting direction and talking points straight from Coca-Cola executives.

In a 2014 email, GEBN President James Hill wrote to Coca-Cola, “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”

To the plaintiffs, this communication and others indicate that Coca-Cola was deceiving the public by claiming that it supported independent, unbiased research on health issues.

“Whether through GEBN, or various universities, Coca-Cola spent approximately $120 million, between 2010–2015 alone, surreptitiously funding various research and programs intending to confuse and misrepresent the science on the link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” argues the complaint.

The plaintiffs also point to this 2013 study that looked at potential bias and conflict of interest in studies on the effects of sugar funded by the food industry. The study found that industry-funded research was five times more likely to find no connection between sugar and ill health effects.

According to the lawsuit, Coca-Cola and the ABA — which is funded in no small part by revenue from Coke and whose board has multiple Coca-Cola executives — have together “marshalled an army of spokespersons who systematically deny through various public relations means the science linking sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity and related diseases and promote falsehoods and misimpressions in its place.”

The plaintiffs allege that the ABA regularly misinforms the public with statements like: “The body of science is clear and supports that a calorie is still a calorie regardless of the
source,” or that “The same holds true for headlines that say drinking soda can cause obesity,
type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. What’s missing from those unfounded statements is any evidence from randomized clinical trials.”

Coca-Cola’s alleged misinformation campaign extended beyond research and shill appearances on talk shows, claim the plaintiffs. In 2013, the company launched a controversial ad campaign in the U.S. and UK highlighting all the fun things you could do to burn off a 139-calorie soda:

The ad was eventually banned in the UK after advertising regulators concluded that viewers could get the idea from the commercial that any one of the activities shown in the ad — like “75 seconds of laughing” or “1 victory dance” — could burn off the full 139 calories.

Coca-Cola, the ABA — along with PepsiCo and Dr. Pepper Snapple — are currently behind the youth-targeted “Mixify” campaign:

The plaintiffs say Mixify just “encourages [kids] to consume sugar-sweetened beverages and then exercise more.”

They also take issue with Coca-Cola’s shift toward their products as essential to “hydration,” even though sugary drinks are not the best way to keep the human body properly hydrated.

“In fact, scientific consensus is that frequent hydration by way of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases,” notes the complaint. “These beverages are not ‘essential,’ or even advisable, for the human body; they are antithetical to well-being of the body if consumed routinely.”

So what law is Coca-Cola alleged to have broken?

The lawsuit contends that the defendants violated the California Unfair Competition Law by making material misrepresentations and omissions that were likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.

The various advertising and marketing efforts allegedly “create the false impression that there is no link between consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or other related conditions, that sugar-sweetened beverages are a healthy component of any diet when ‘balanced’ with some activity, and that drinking beverages to hydrate is ‘essential’ to human health and that sugar-sweetened beverages are a good source of hydration.”

The plaintiffs argue that by not being transparent about the potential health risks associated with their products, Coca-Cola and the ABA have deceived consumers into purchasing products they may not have bought if they had all the relevant information.

The lawsuit also alleges Coca-Cola and ABA violated the California False Advertising Law by falsely giving the public the impression that sugary drinks are not linked to chronic health issues.

It seeks injunctions preventing the defendants from making claims denying any link between sugar and the various ailments, and preventing Coca-Cola from marketing its products to kids.

The defendants should also be required, say the plaintiffs, to share all research they have related to the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on health.

Finally, the plaintiffs want Coke and ABA to fund a corrective public education campaign to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, while also prominently posting notices on their websites that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

“Coca-Cola executives have known for years that their products undermine health,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is helping to represent the plaintiffs in this case. “Nevertheless, for years they have mounted a multi-million-dollar effort to persuade consumers that their products are benign—even healthful.”

In a statement emailed to Consumerist, a representative for Coca-Cola called the lawsuit “legally and factually meritless.”

“We take our consumers and their health very seriously and have been on a journey to become a more credible and helpful partner in helping consumers manage their sugar consumption,” continues the statement. “To that end, we have led the industry adopting clear, front-of-pack calorie labeling for all our beverages. We are innovating to expand low- and no-calorie products; offering and promoting more drinks in smaller sizes; reformulating products to reduce added sugars; transparently disclosing our funding of health and well-being scientific research and partnerships; and do not advertise to children under 12. We will continue to listen and learn from the public health community and remain committed to playing a meaningful role in the fight against obesity.”

Update: The ABA has provided Consumerist with the following statement regarding the lawsuit:
“America’s beverage companies know we have an important role to play in addressing our nation’s health challenges. That’s why we’re engaging with health groups and community organizations to drive a reduction in the sugar and calories Americans get from beverages. Unfounded accusations like these won’t do anything to address health concerns, but the actions we’re taking, particularly in areas where obesity rates are among the highest, can make a difference.”

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