Sugar / Andrei Niemimäki

January 6, 2017, Reuters

Sugar: the thing we love but does not love us back.

In a September article about sugar in our diets, we addressed the need for scientific research to be publicly funded to avoid the conflict of interests inherent when the industry itself pays for the studies. Just a few months later, we are again looking at sugar’s role in damaging our health through a couple of lawsuits.

A lawsuit charging Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association with misleading the public has been filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California on behalf of the Praxis Project. The Praxis Project is a nonprofit whose mission, in part, is “to build healthy communities by changing the power relationships between people of color and the institutional structures that affect their lives.” The suit states that the soda company claims obesity and diseases such as diabetes are not linked to beverages containing sugar, but scientific studies cannot back up those assertions. The suit goes on to claim that Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association depict the lack of exercise—and not the consumption of sugar—as the culprit for obesity and related conditions. While scientific studies have determined that sugar plays a part in the growing number of obese Americans, the soda company implies that one calorie is the same as another.

Some of the deceptive statements called out in the lawsuit are:

  • Coca-Cola’s senior vice president, Katie Bayne, claims that“[t]here is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity.”
  • “Coca-Cola is an excellent complement to the habits of a healthy life,” said former Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Douglas Ivester.
  • “There is no unique link between soda consumption and obesity,” claims a post on the ABA’s website.
  • “Simply put, it is wrong to say beverages cause disease,” the ABA stated in another
  • Coca-Cola’s incoming CEO, James Quincey, equated sugar-sweetened beverages to any other calories, dismissing their unique contribution to the obesity epidemic by asserting such beverages contribute only two percent of calories overall.

Praxis Project has brought the suit in California, but the results will reverberate across the market. While one nonprofit fights that fight, a philanthropic organization comes to the sugar fight in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Business Journal reports on another lawsuit, filed against the city of Philadelphia and Frank Breslin, the commissioner of the city’s Revenue Department, by local restaurants and beverage associations in the city after the passage of the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. The suit is ongoing and has cost the city over $800,000 since September of 2016. A Texas organization, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, donated $500,000 to the city in November to help defray the costs of the soda tax lawsuit.

“The Arnold Foundation’s support will go a long way towards easing the City’s financial cost of defending against this lawsuit by the American Beverage Association,” City Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante said in a statement. “Philadelphia should not be penalized for doing what we know is right for our children or for doing what is legally sound—a view upheld by the Common Pleas Court last month.”

This is, of course, not the first time that the Arnold Foundation has weighed in with a significant grant on a controversial issue. Among other examples, in Baltimore they recently contributed to the costs of a community surveillance program, and previously they made a grant to investigate the prices of pharmaceutical drugs.

At the end of the day, sugar and the beverages that contain it are part of the economy. (Billionaire Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway is Coca-Cola’s largest shareholder, has said he drinks at least five Cokes a day.) But as we learn and gain knowledge, we adjust; things fall out of use, as tobacco has—though it stills kicks a bit as its market shrinks. In the beverage arena, total consumption of soda has declined each year since 2004. It is now at a 30-year low. The market will likely settle all of this in the end, as it does with many issues. People will stop buying a product, even if you have created a marketing plan to disguise the facts.—Marian Conway