Coke faces deception case

Coke faces deception case

Buying scientists. Misleading the public. Coca Cola USA is facing a lawsuit for manipulating the public. Meanwhile in South Africa, fizzy drink manufacturers are using all kinds of tactics to stop the proposed tax on sugary drinks. 

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Are you drinking yourself sick?
Are you drinking yourself sick?

Four days into 2017, Coca Cola USA was slapped with a lawsuit aimed at stopping its “campaign of deception” to downplay the health risks of its drinks.

The non-profit organisation, Praxis Project, wants to stop Coca Cola and the American Beverage Association (ABA) from “deceiving the public on the science linking obesity and related diseases to regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages” and to stop them from marketing their drinks to children.

“Despite widespread agreement in the scientific and medical communities that sugar-sweetened beverages are a primary cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease [heart attacks and strokes]”, Coca Cola and the ABA continued to deny this and “misrepresent the science”, according to court papers filed in the North California District Court.

The three main tactics of Coke’s “misrepresentation”, according to the court papers, involve:

  •  “secretly funding and publicly promoting biased scientific research”,
  • blaming obesity on lack of exercise, rather than diet,
  • running “false and misleading advertising campaigns”.

Millions on research

Coca Cola spent $120-million between 2010 and 2015 on research that undermined the link between sugary drinks and poor health, according to the New York Times 

Coke helped to set up organisations such as the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) and the European Hydration Institute (EHI) that have shifted the blame for obesity away from diet to a lack of exercise and dehydration. The GEBN’s website is registered to Coca Cola.

Dr Steven Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the vice president of GEBN, has claimed that “there is virtually no compelling evidence” linking sugary drinks to the obesity epidemic.

Meanwhile, last October the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published research which showed that, between 2011 and 2015, Coca Cola and Pepsi sponsored 95 health organisations in the US, including many purporting to fight obesity.

“There is surprisingly pervasive sponsorship of national health and medical organisations by the nation’s two largest soda companies,” according to the article. “These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97 percent of cases, calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health. By accepting funding from these companies, health organisations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans.”

Tactics like tobacco industry

No to soft drinks. Credit: Environmental Illness Network/flickr.
No to soft drinks. Credit: Environmental Illness Network/flickr.

Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, says that Coca Cola’s tactics are similar to those used by the tobacco industry, which in previous decades also paid scientists to underplay the dangers of smoking.

Unsurprisingly, research funded by Coke, Pepsi and the ABA on sugary drinks was five times more likely to find no link between the drinks and obesity than studies conducted by scientists without soda companies’ sponsorship, according to an article in the journal, Plos Medicine.

However, Coca Cola has described the lawsuit as being “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,” the soda giant said in a press release.

Actions in this regard included “clear, front-of-pack calorie labeling”, more “low- and no-calorie products”, “ promoting more drinks in smaller sizes” and “reformulating products to reduce added sugars”, according to Coca Cola, which  also claims it does not advertise to children under 12.

Back in South Africa, a similar game plan is unfolding to protect soda companies’ profits since Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced last February that Treasury planned to tax sugary drinks in a bid to curb obesity.

Government has proposed that sugary drinks are taxed at a rate of 2.29 cents per gram of sugar. This means that a 330ml can of Coke (8 teaspoons of sugar) will cost 80 cents more.

‘Murdering the industry’

Phil Gutsche, chairperson of Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, claims that the tax will “murder” the industry and be “taxing the children and the poor”

Last month, Fin24 journalist Adiel Ismail revealed that Coca Cola had funded research by the SA Institute of Race Relations, which argues against the new tax on sugary drinks that government plans to introduce this year

Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance is holding a public hearing on the proposed tax next Tuesday (31 January) and the deadline for public comment is noon on Friday (submissions can be emailed to Allen Wicomb at [email protected])

BevSA contracted a Paarl-based research agency, Oxford Economics, to look into the economic implications of the tax and the research company concluded that between 62 000 and 72 000 jobs would be lost and that consumers would pay around 25% more for their sodas.

Treasury and various economists, have disputed the job loss figures and pointed to Mexico, which introduced a sugar tax in 2013 and did not suffer job losses.

Dr Neva Makgetla, a programme manager at the Trade and Industry Policy Strategies, told Africa Check that the job loss figure was “patently exaggerated”. When Mexico introduced a sugary drinks tax in 2014, this did not lead to job losses.

Fearing-mongering

However, BevSA has used the job loss fear-mongering figures to build alliances with small business owners, including the Alexandra-based Tshebedisano Support Network, trade unions such as the Food and Allied Workers Union and research organisations such as the SAIRR and the Free Market Foundation.

Like the Institute of Race Relations, the Free Market Foundation has also taken a strong stand against the tax. At a recent workshop on the tax hosted by Treasury for all interested stakeholders, the FMF’s Leon Louw and Tshebedisano’s Silas Hermans were both wearing identical T-shirts condemning the sugar tax.

Members of Parliament at the hearing next week are likely to be bombarded by members of industry opposed to the tax, as the Treasury meeting late last year was. It remains to be seen whether MPs will be able to withstand pressure from the powerful soda industry.

As Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, told the annual meeting of the National Academy of Medicine last October, the widespread occurrence of obesity and diabetes “is not a failure of individual willpower to resist fats and sweets or exercise more. It is a failure of political will to take on powerful economic operators, like the food and soda industries”. – Health-e News.