A Coca-Cola Foundation advertisement

A Coca-Cola Foundation advertisement

Last month, two prominent African American pastors and a public health organization sued a major soda manufacturer and soda industry body, alleging that the defendants have misled the public about the health impacts of sugary drinks in breach of consumer protection laws. This post considers the impact of soda consumption on the health of Americans and the potential impacts of litigation against an industry that has prioritized profits over health.

An epidemic of overweight and obesity in the United States

The United States is facing an epidemic of overweight and obesity. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that, as of 2015, 35.7% of adults are overweight and almost 30% are obese. Approximately one in five children aged 6–19 is obese. African American and Latino populations are disproportionately affected by overweight and obesity. For example, data from 2011 and 2012 shows that 22.4% of Latino children aged 2-19 years were obese, compared to 20.2% of African American children, and 14.3% of White children.

Sugary drinks and disease

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) is linked to greater energy intake and weight gain, as well as increased risk for metabolic syndrome, type 2-diabetes and heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend limiting daily calorie intake from added sugars to 10% of total calories. Since almost half of added sugars in the diets of Americans come from sugary drinks, discouraging consumption is a priority for government health officials.

Big Soda obscures link and shifts blame

The soda industry, led by the American Beverage Association (ABA), denies and obscures the link between soda consumption and disease and lobbies against public health laws and policies designed to reduce consumption. The industry also devotes significant resources to shifting the blame for obesity from sugar intake to lack of physical activity (which is no doubt another national concern). Coca-Cola combines misleading ads with funding for scientific research focused on physical activity rather than the role of food and nutrition in obesity. Confusing and distracting consumers from public health messaging is nothing new for the soda giant, which paid three Harvard scientists in the 1960s to minimize the negative impact of sugar on heart health and shift the blame to saturated fats. The industry’s strategic objective remains the same: to maximize sales of harmful products, prioritizing profits over the public’s health.

Big Soda targets minority groups

In its quest to maximize profits, the soda industry (like Big Tobacco) has increasingly targeted specific communities. Predominately African American and lower-income neighborhoods bear a disproportionately heavy burden of ads for sugary drinks and junk food. In addition to targeted marketing, health disparities are exacerbated by limited access to, and affordability of, healthy and nutritious food options in many communities.

Fighting back: new litigation challenges Big Soda’s marketing strategy

In July, The Washington Post published the story of two African American pastors who got “tired of presiding over funerals for parishioners who died of heart disease, diabetes and stroke” and decided to file a suit against Coca-Cola and the ABA. Together with a public health organization, pastors William Lamar and Delman Coates allege that the defendants’ marketing is false and misleading and in breach of consumer protection laws. They argue that the industry has misled the public about the health impacts of sugary drinks, hampering efforts to protect parishioners. The suit demands a suit of remedies, including prohibiting future unfair and deceptive promotion of sugary drinks and prohibiting any marketing and promotion to children under 12. Coca-Cola states that the case is “legally and factually meritless” and has committed to mounting a vigorous defense.

Regardless of the final outcome, the lawsuit has brought national attention to Big Soda’s marketing strategies as well as the disproportionate burden of diet-related disease experienced by African Americans. As highlighted by Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post, it “marks a break with tradition for African American and Latino community groups who have been reliable allies of Big Soda for years in policy fights across the country.”

The plaintiffs’ claims resemble litigation brought by several US state attorneys general against major cigarette companies, which resulted in the largest civil settlement in US history, including payments to cover the cost of tobacco-related health care, the public disclosure of millions of tobacco industry documents, and restrictions on tobacco advertising. Ultimately, we may look back on Lamar et al v. Coca-Cola et al. as the beginning of a long, litigious battle against the soda industry, reminiscent of hard-fought and impactful litigation against the tobacco industry.