Coca-Cola, the world’s largest sugar-sweetened beverage maker, has knowingly diverted the unhealthy effects of sugary drinks through misinformation and false advertising, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California, alleges that Coca-Cola and an industry trade group, the American Beverage Association (ABA), has “engaged in a pattern of deception to mislead and confuse” the public and public health agencies “about the scientific consensus that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
The allegations include secretly funding and publically promoting biased research, working together to promote exercise over the reduction of sugary drink consumption, and running “false and misleading advertising campaigns” while growing scientific evidence linked its products to preventable diseases, states the lawsuit filed by a two nonprofit organizations.
“A primary purpose of these ongoing campaigns of disinformation and misrepresentation is to maintain and increase the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages, and to thwart and delay efforts of government entities to regulate sugar-sweetened beverages through warning labels, taxes, and other measures designed to make consumers aware of the potential for harm,” the lawsuit states.
Citing internal documents, the lawsuit states Coca-Cola’s top executives were responsible for recruiting researchers who, at least in one case, wanted to help Coca-Cola “avoid the image of being a problem in people’s lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
A representative for Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment. When its funding of research was reported in the press, Coca-Cola publically disclosed the recipients of $135.4 million spent on research and health programs from 2009 to June 2016.
The ABA said in a statement to Healthline that beverage companies have a role to play in addressing the 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,” the statement said. “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.”
The suit was filed by attorneys for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Public Health Advocacy Institute, organizations with histories of challenging large soda makers on the health effects of their beverages.
No monetary compensation is specified in the lawsuit.
What the lawsuit says
The lawsuit alleges that Coca-Cola engages in false advertising by paying researchers, medical professionals, and others to contradict independent scientific evidence about the adverse health effects of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.
This strategy, the lawsuit states, includes heavily advertising to children when the company says it doesn’t, establishing front groups to emphasize exercise — not caloric restrictions by eliminating sugary beverages — and suggesting sodas are healthy snacks. (Healthline reported on these tactics in-depth last fall.)
“The lawsuit takes on the soda industry’s claims that physical activity is more important than diet in maintaining a healthy body weight, that sodas are important for hydration, and that soda companies are not advertising to children — all of which are demonstrably false, as the suit documents,” Marion Nestle, a New York University professor, and author of “Soda Politics,” who is not involved in the lawsuit, told Healthline.
Ultimately, the plaintiffs want Coca-Cola and the ABA to stop using tactics in violation of California’s Unfair Competition and False Advertising laws.
Lawsuits, taxes, warning labels
The case was filed in the San Francisco Bay Area, where criticism of soda manufacturers and their products has been backed up by judges, lawmakers, and voters.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Praxis Project, an Oakland, California- and Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on health justice.
The suit alleges Praxis had to unjustly use its resources to combat Coca-Cola’s aggressive marketing and denial of scientific evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages cause obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Xavier Morales, Praxis’ executive director, said in a statement that his organization is “tired of trying to counter the deep pocket advertising that misleads our communities regarding the dangers of regularly consuming sugary drinks. The price our community pays through decreased health, increased diabetes, and amputations is too high.”
Morales also sits on a board for the city of Berkeley that recommends how funds collected from the city’s one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages are spent.
The tax, which voter’s passed in 2014, was the first “soda tax” to pass in the United States. Since then, Philadelphia; San Francisco; Oakland; Albany, New York; Boulder, Colorado; and Cook County, Illinois, have enacted similar taxes.
The ABA spent millions lobbying against and challenging these taxes and other measures meant to decrease soda consumption.
In Oakland, where the latest lawsuit was filed, voters in November approved a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks — including sodas and juices — by a nearly two-thirds vote. The largest portion was spent on ad campaigns and mailers that described the proposed taxes on sugary drinks as taxes on groceries, according to campaign disclosure forms.
The Praxis lawsuit was also filed in the same district that upheld a San Francisco law that required sugar-sweetened beverage advertisements to bear a warning label of the associated health effects. The ABA challenged the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote on First Amendment grounds.
Previous legal actions
Two of the attorneys filing the latest lawsuit have previous experience regarding claims against Coca-Cola.
Last year, Michael R. Reese, a New York City-based attorney who often works with nonprofit groups regarding false or deceptive advertising, and Maia Kats, a CSPI attorney, were among other attorneys representing people who claimed to be misled by Coca-Cola.
Specifically, that lawsuit alleged that from 2003 to 2015 vitamin water was marketed as a nutrient-rich beverage when it was in fact another sugary drink.
In April, they reached a settlement with Coca-Cola in which the company admitted no wrongdoing. While the total amount of the settlement wasn’t disclosed, Coca-Cola agreed to pay $2.7 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses, according to the judge’s final order.
While public health advocates continue to force legal action and bring taxes before voters, soda consumption has been on a decline since the turn of the century.
Nestle says this shows that customers are already voting with their forks and their straws.
“The kinds of issues challenged by the lawsuit are increasingly desperate-appearing attempts by soda companies to reverse these trends,” she said. “CSPI is calling them on the ethics of such attempts. It will be interesting to see how the courts interpret the suit.”