Despite the scientifically established link between consuming sugar drinks and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, the Coca-Cola Company and its trade association, the American Beverage Association, deceive consumers by denying and obscuring soda’s link to those diseases, according to a lawsuit filed today.
Bringing the action filed today in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia are 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 nonprofit 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 executive Katie Bayne’s much-publicized statement that “[t]here 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 numerous other prominent medical and health authorities all acknowledge such links.
Plaintiffs and Andrew Rainer Discuss the Lawsuit
“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. And they need to know about the possibility of lost limbs, blindness, sexual dysfunction, and premature death.”
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. James Quincey, Coca-Cola’s new CEO, claimed in a widely publicized interview that “the experts are clear—the academics, government advisors, diabetes associations … a calorie is a calorie.”
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. The complaint also cites the widely reported secret funding by Coca-Cola—$120 million between 2010 and 2015—to scientists and projects that publicly advanced the proposition that “energy balance” is more important than reducing soda consumption. Meanwhile, advertising campaigns like “Be OK” misleadingly implied that light exercise, such as laughing out loud for 75 seconds, offsets the health effects of Coke consumption, or, in the words of the ABA-funded campaign known as “Mixify,” that some afternoon Frisbee earned players “more” soda.
Coca-Cola’s Deceptive Ad Campaign
Other promotions deceptively advance sugar drinks as a safe form of essential hydration. The complaint again cites Coca-Cola’s Bayne, who claimed that “What our drinks offer is hydration. That’s essential to the human body. We offer great taste and benefits … We don’t believe in empty calories. We believe in hydration.”
“We need to put permanent protections into place that protect kids’ health by shielding them from Coke’s omnipresent and deceptive marketing,” said 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. These medical conditions kill or maim. When one in every two Latino and African American youth born since 2000 are expected to get diabetes in their lifetime, we need to stand up and take action. Praxis is proud to be bringing this lawsuit.”
In Washington, DC, more residents die each year from complications related to obesity than from AIDS, cancer, and homicides combined, according to the city’s health department.
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.
“For decades, the tobacco industry engaged in a systemic campaign of deception to cast doubt on the science connecting smoking to lung cancer,” said Kats. “Today Coca-Cola and the ABA are conducting their own campaign of deception to hide the science connecting sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease. We seek to protect consumers and to stop the deception.”
The Public Health Advocacy Institute’s litigation director Andrew Rainer, who has tried cases against cigarette companies, said, “Coca-Cola and the ABA have taken not just a page but a whole chapter out of Big Tobacco’s playbook for denying scientific truth. They claim there is “no science” linking their products to obesity, type 2 diabetes.”