SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association engage in false, deceptive, Big Tobacco-like tactics to discredit the harmful effects of sugar-sweetened beverages, the health nonprofit Praxis Project claims in a federal lawsuit.
“Although defendants have publicly pledged allegiance to objective scientific criteria, they have instead represented falsely that sugar-sweetened beverages are not scientifically linked to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and have waged an aggressive campaign of disinformation about the health consequences of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages,” Praxis says in its complaint, filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit comes as soda manufacturers like Coca-Cola have tried to repel regulatory attacks on their industry. Cities across the United States, including San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago and Boulder, Colorado, have introduced taxes on sugary drinks, and a federal judge also recently upheld San Francisco’s bid to require a warning label on all outdoor soda ads.
Praxis Project says the soda giant and trade association have intensified their deceptive ad campaigns since 2012, amid a growing body of scientific research linking soda to obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
The group says Coca-Cola secretly funded biased scientific research and worked with the association on initiatives that promoted exercise or “balance” as an alternative to cutting back on soda consumption.
For example, Coca-Cola’s “Be-Ok” ad campaign, which ran in the United States during the Super Bowl, “implied that light activities – always undertaken by trim and fit models, instead of overweight, obese or diabetic consumers – like laughing for 75 seconds, or doing a victory jig in the bowling alley, or 15 minutes of happy dancing would offset the harmful health consequences of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages,” Praxis says in its lawsuit.
Praxis claims the Coca-Cola and ABA-sponsored “Mixify” campaign tells kids that they shouldn’t be concerned with the added sugar or calories in soda, as long as they exercise to counterbalance their soda intake.
“Advertisements sponsored by Coca-Cola through the Mixify campaign advise kids, ‘Just finished an afternoon of Frisbee? Maybe you’ve earned a little more [soda],’” Praxis says.
It claims Coca-Cola’s “Coming Together” campaign also promotes the deceptive idea that all calories are equal by declaring, “‘All calories count. No matter where they come from, including Coca- Cola and everything else with calories.’”
The lawsuit quotes Ruth Fagan, Wagley professor of biomedical ethics and director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, as saying of the campaign, “‘For Coca-Cola to suggest that all calories are equal flies in the face of reality. … Coca-Cola wants us to ignore the considerable research confirming that sugary soda is a major contributor to obesity, and that it has no nutritional value.’”
In response to such statements from the scientific community, Praxis says Coca-Cola began claiming its sodas are sources of “essential hydration,” and despite its promise not to advertise to minors, it continues to do just that.
“The goal of Coca-Cola’s advertising is to convey to young people that sugar-sweetened beverages are desirable, safe, healthy and prevalent in society,” Praxis says in its complaint. “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. To attract young consumers to their sugar-sweetened beverages, for example, Coca-Cola has used cartoons, celebrities, over 300 apps, billboards at sponsored events, and otherwise has massively disseminated other consumer products branded with Coca-Cola.”
Praxis Project says it has been forced to spend substantial time and effort combatting the soda giant and trade association’s “aggressive campaign of disinformation” about the health effects of consuming soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks.
In a statement, the group’s executive director Xavier Morales said, “We are 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. Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Industry need to stop their predatory marketing and they also need to stop misleading our communities through their false health claims and continued masking of the insidious health effects of consuming sugared water.”
But the beverage association says it’s been doing its part to combat obesity and promote less sugar consumption.
In an emailed statement, association vice president of policy William Dermody said, “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.”
The complaint seeks to bar Coca-Cola and the association from promoting the idea that sugar-sweetened beverages are not linked to obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and require them to disclose research related to the negative effects of consuming sugary drinks. Praxis Project also wants Coca-Cola and the association to fund a “corrective public education campaign” about soda consumption, and feature the connection between health problems and soda prominently on their websites.
In a statement, Coca-Cola also called the Praxis Project’s 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. 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,” Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said in the statement.
Praxis Project is represented by Maia Kats with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Andrew Rainer with the Public Health Advocacy Institute, and Michael Reese with Reese LLP.