Coca-Cola Co faces a purported class-action lawsuit initiated by a consumer-advocacy group and other litigants, who say that the beverage giant made deceptive claims about its line of Vitaminwater beverages. Coke came under fire in December by the FDA, which said claims Diet Coke Plus includes a variety of vitamins and minerals violate US policy against marketing soda and other snack foods as more nutritious. (See: FDA hauls Coca-Cola for "misbranding")
The latest lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in US District Court in the Northern District of California, comes just weeks after the world's largest soft drink maker was warned by health regulators about the way it markets a different product.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said Coke made a range of claims about Vitaminwater that go beyond those allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. "Coke markets Vitaminwater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as 'defense,' 'rescue,' 'energy' and 'endurance,'" the group said in a statement.
"The idea that you can improve your immunity by drinking one of these Vitaminwater drinks is nonsense," David Schardt, a senior nutritionist for the nonprofit group, said during a conference call with reporters.
The group said Coke markets Vitaminwater as a healthful alternative to soda and said the company makes a wide range of assertions, including claims that the drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease and support immune function. The nonprofit's nutritionists say the levels of sugar in the drinks promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.
"In fact, according to CSPI nutritionists, the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of Vitaminwater do more to promote obesity, diabetes and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles," the consumer group said.
"Vitaminwater is Coke's attempt to dress up soda in a physician's white coat,'' CSPI said. ''Underneath, it's still sugar water, albeit sugar water that costs about ten bucks a gallon."
The other law firms involved in the case are Reese Richman LLP and Whatley Drake & Kallas LLC.
A Coke spokeswoman, Diana Garza Ciarlante, called the suit "ridiculous." "Glaceau Vitaminwater is clearly and properly labeled and shows the amount of vitamins and calories in the product," she said. "This is not about protecting the public interest. This is about increasing the readership of CSPI's increasingly irrelevant newsletter."
Coke, which had long lagged archrival PepsiCo Inc in the area of noncarbonated drinks, said in May 2007 that it would acquire Vitaminwater maker Glaceau for $4.1 billion. Coke and Pepsi both sell so-called functional beverages, which they say have vitamins, nutrients or stimulants such as caffeine or guarana. (See: Coca-Cola acquires Glaceau for $4.1 billion)