Coke is sued: Are soda companies going the way of tobacco companies?

Recent studies and reports have concluded that Coca-Cola has tried to paper over soda's public health effects. Now it faces a lawsuit.

Samrang Pring/Reuters
A man drinks a Coca-Cola at a store in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Public health activists are suing Coca-Cola over ad campaigns that they describe as an effort to intentionally confuse children and the public about soda’s links to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The nonprofit Praxis Project, represented by counsel from two public health institutes, is seeking to force Coke to drop deceptive ads and disclose documents that would indicate how much the company knew about the possible health consequences of soda consumption. And the filing likens the company’s behavior to tobacco companies’ tactics.

“Just as the tobacco industry formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee in 1953 to respond to scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, Coca-Cola’s strategy was one of ‘cultivating relationships’ with scientists as a way to ‘balance the debate’ on sugar-sweetened beverages,” wrote the plaintiffs.

“Despite its pledge not to do so, Coca-Cola continues to target children with a material segment of its advertising. Like the tobacco industry, Coca-Cola needs to replenish the ranks of its customers, and it tries to recruit them young.”

Coke spokesman Kent Landers dismissed the lawsuit as meritless in an emailed response to queries from Bloomberg, saying the company would “continue to listen and learn from the public health community and remain committed to playing a meaningful role in the fight against obesity.”

The lawsuit returns attention to the soda industry’s funding of researchers and health groups as part of what critics see as an effort to give the same sugary drinks a health-conscious makeover. It might also press Coke and other soda producers further toward producing other products – the kind of natural “out” that tobacco companies have never really had.

Soda and soft drinks still make up a large majority of Coke’s sales – 72 percent as of last April. But as consumers’ tastes change, the company is trying to adjust.

“For both Coke and Pepsi, a shift away from their soda-centric identities is crucial to their survival. In 1998, the average American drank 56 gallons of soda annually. By 2014, it was 42 gallons, according to Beverage Digest. Soda sales have declined each of the last 11 years,” The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.

In addition to regrouping its disparate products under the “One Brand” banner, Coke is branching out further into products such as readymade coffee, juices, dairy, and protein drinks, notes Bloomberg, and has some 200 reformulations planned that would cut the sugar content in existing drinks.

Food and tobacco are also pretty different substances.

“The most obvious [difference] is that humans must eat to maintain health and life, whereas the unnecessary activity of smoking is, in the words of former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano, ‘slow-motion suicide,’ ” wrote obesity expert Kelly Brownell in 2009.

“Tobacco has a well-chronicled addictive process, whereas research on food and addiction is just now maturing. And although the fight against tobacco coalesced around a single product made by a few companies, food and its industries are far more complex,” he added.

But Dr. Brownell went on to note some “striking similarities ... in the way the food and tobacco industries have responded to public mistrust, damning scientific evidence, and calls for legal and legislative actions,” including emphasizing personal responsibility for one’s diet and casting public doubt on scientific conclusions linking soda to obesity.

Coke has also poured millions into research on obesity and sponsorships with a wide range of national health organizations – funding that has come under intense scrutiny in the past few years, as researchers point to it as a potential means of neutralizing legislative efforts and a way to push studies that are much less likely to connect sugary drinks with weight gain, as one 2013 analysis from a team of Spanish and German researchers found.

“Industry sponsors' financial interests might bias the conclusions of scientific research,” the team wrote.

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