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Class Accuses Coca-Cola of Deception

CHICAGO (CN) - Coca-Cola misleads consumers about its sugary signature drink, falsely claiming that Coke contains no artificial flavors and is part of a kid's healthy diet, a class action claims in Federal Court.

Ronald Sowizrol sued the Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola Refreshments U.S.A. in Federal Court.

"Faced with clear evidence that it was losing market share because consumers increasingly preferred beverages without artificial flavoring and chemical preservatives, The Coca-Cola Company, owner of the brand, responded not by providing consumers with what they wanted -- a natural and healthy drink -- but by deceiving them into thinking that Coca-Cola was natural and healthy when in fact it contained artificial flavoring and chemical preservatives," the complaint begins.

Every can of Coke sold in the United States either falsely states that it does not contain artificial flavoring, or fails to affirmatively state that it contains artificial flavoring, as required by state and federal law, Sowizrol claims.

"The Coca-Cola Company's own website directs consumers to the website of The Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness, which portrays defendants' products, including Coca-Cola, as an integral part of a healthy diet and an excellent means of maintaining proper hydration," the complaint states.

"It goes so far as to recommend that defendants' products, including Coca-Cola, should specifically be used to maintain the health and well-being of children. It states: 'Studies suggest that active children consume more fluids and stay better hydrated when the liquid is flavored. Beverages that are sweetened with caloric sweeteners or with low- and no-calorie sweeteners can be an important contributor to hydration, providing a sweet taste that encourages a child to consume more fluid.'

"Defendants' concerted efforts to employ false and deceptive labeling practices to mislead consumers into thinking Coca-Cola is natural and healthy, when in fact it is neither, did not occur by accident. Rather, it was a response to changing consumer preferences, which were causing Coca-Cola, as well as other carbonated soft drinks, to lose market share," Sowizrol says.

By 2008, the complaint alleges, Coca-Cola realized consumers were buying less soda, and switching to healthier beverages.

"The situation so substantially affected defendants that the Coca-Cola Company's Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer referred to these changes in consumer preferences as a 'category five' hurricane that was 'really bearing down on us,'" according to the complaint.

But rather than reformulate Coke without artificial flavorings, the company "adopted a global campaign of disinformation, false advertising, false labeling and misbranding, dubbed 'Pemberton' after the pharmacist who invented Coca-Cola. This campaign was designed to fool consumers into the erroneous belief that their products were not artificially flavored or chemically preserved," Sowizrol claims.

Coke contains phosphoric acid, an artificial flavoring, but its labels claimed it had contained no artificial flavoring "since 1886." Coke ads also stated that the beverage was made with the "original formula," devised in 1886, when in fact "the composition of Coca-Cola has repeatedly changed over time. These changes have included, among other things, an increase in the amount of unhealthy ingredients like sugar and corn syrup and the addition of artificial ingredients like phosphoric acid," the complaint states.

Sowizrol seeks punitive damages for fraud, violation of the Illinois Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, breach of implied warranty, negligence and unjust enrichment.

He is represented by Shannon McNulty with Clifford Law.

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