Coca-Cola Hit With “Tobacco-Style” Lawsuit. Who Else Is at Risk?
Put down that soda! According to a lawsuit filed against Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO),
the carbonated drink is just as dangerous to your health as a cigarette. Well,
maybe not quite, but the soda giant and the American Beverage Association
(ABA) are being sued by consumer activists who say their actions are just as
bad as what the tobacco giants did, and they should be similarly punished.
While the implications for Coca-Cola and the rest of the soda industry are
obviously huge should the lawsuit be successful, that risk would actually
multiply exponentially because of what it would mean for the rest of the
food and beverage industry. Triumphant trial lawyers likely would not just
stop at soda, but would also attack other beverages they deemed unhealthy
— energy drinks, anyone? — as well as processed food manufacturers, candy,
ice cream, and snack makers.
The complaint filed by the nonprofit organization Praxis Project accuses Coke
and the ABA of deliberately misleading consumers over the health effects of
soda. It charges that they colluded to confuse people about the science linking
sugary drinks with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It says
they chose to deflect attention from soda being the cause of such illnesses onto
a lack of exercise as the likely cause, and maintained a fake news campaign that consumers could “balance” their intake of soda as part of an overall dietary
regime of health.
The tactics are similar to how lawyers went after the tobacco companies. In
the 1950s, tobacco companies routinely defended themselves against claims
that cigarettes caused cancer by denying there was a link, or by suggesting
other factors caused cancer. In the 1980s, the tobacco companies argued
smokers knowingly assumed the risks of cancer, or other health problems,
when they began smoking, but it wasn’t until a third phase of lawsuits filed
against tobacco companies when it emerged the the tobacco companies had
actually been aware of the addictive nature of tobacco.
In 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states settled with four of the largest
tobacco companies under a Master Settlement Agreement that remains in
effect today, and through which tens of billions of dollars have been paid out.
Think of the children
The suit also claims that Coke targets kids with its advertising — just like
the cigarette companies — as a way “to replenish the ranks of its customers,
and it tries to recruit them young.” Similar to tobacco’s Joe Camel, which was
said to be a subtle call to lure children into smoking, the suit points to Coke’s
animated polar bear advertising through a link to a website put up by the
Center for Science in the Public Interest called The Real Bears, which warns
of the dangers of soda consumption by playing off the polar bears.
The Snack Foods Association also supports national GMO labeling laws,
but the better than $374 billion snack-foods industry is often pointed
to as a big contributor to an unhealthy diet. According to 2014 Nielsen
research, snacks are used as meal replacements around half the time,
and that can’t be healthy.
Nielsen also found that, when it comes to candy consumption, families
with young kids are what’s driving sales. Around two-thirds of families
with children 12 and younger are the ones buying sweets, and propping
up the $21 billion candy industry.
Big targets, deeper pockets await
There are endless numbers of avenues of attack against Big Food.
What did the industry know about trans fats (or sodium, partially
hydrogenated fats, added sugar), and when did they know it?
Will individual retailers find themselves on the receiving end of endless
lawsuits for not doing all they could to protect consumers from themselves?
This may depend upon the success of the complaint filed against Coke.
But like the tobacco industry before it, the start of a legal assault against
Coca-Cola is merely an expedition to go after more and bigger fish in
the food and beverage industry.
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