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Lawsuit accuses Coca-Cola of tobacco-industry practices

The soft-drink megabrand’s tactics reflecting the discredited tactics of big tobacco? If true, it gives new meaning to the phrase, “Smoke and mirrors.”

The Coca-Cola Company needs no introduction, other than by name. The American Beverage Association, a trade-group, is lesser known but nonetheless prominent. Any lawsuit naming these two affects the soft-drink industry, for sure, but ­not to the exclusion of other industries.

The Praxis Project Center is the advocacy group that brought suit, assisted by The Center for Science in the Public Interest. Both have a history of accusing companies and brands of compromising the health of society. Even so, various other stakeholders, at various times, have claimed that the consumption of Coke (and of sugary soft-drinks, as a category) is linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

What’s different with the Praxis suit is that it alleges that the Coca-Cola Company is guilty of deceptive advertising that misleads the public about the aforementioned health risks and is guilty of advertising to children. Going an unprecedented step further, the suit alleges that the deceptiveness and targeting mirror the practices of big tobacco before that industry’s record-breaking settlement.

Packaging has been instrumental to Coke’s success. For more than a century, the structure and graphics have combined for marketing synergy and category-leadership. There’s no need, therefore, to side with a particular litigant to recognize that no matter how the suit winds through the courts, packaging will be affected.

The mass-production, mass-marketing, and mass-distribution of retail consumer products would not be possible without packaging. That’s an objective fact, summarizing the vast contribution packaging makes to society. There’s a subjective side of the coin, however, in the form of differing opinions about the redeeming values of the products that packaging makes available.

If Coke is harmful to health then the packaging bears some responsibility for making Coke available. Such a conditional, although logically sound, does not mean that the “if” portion has been proven. That’s to be determined by court proceedings. Praxis is seeking declarative and injunctive relief; in other words, it wants the court to make official declarations about the health nexus and child-targeting, and if found to exist, order Coke to desist.

Even modest civil lawsuits can be protracted affairs, far truer of ones involving powerful litigates and the potential for industry-sweeping changes. It’s reckless to rely on prediction, given the variety of ways that a judge and jury can fulfill their sworn duties. A bigger wildcard is discovery, the process through which the parties gain information from one another through court filings, formal requests, depositions, etc.

Given such uncertainty, it’s better to devise scenarios and to strategize accordingly. Coca-Cola (inconceivably) would be remiss if it didn’t do that, but so would Pepsi-Cola, Dr. Pepper, and every other industry-member, because they, in effect, are unnamed Defendants.

Let’s say that Coca-Cola, whether by verdict or settlement, revamps its advertising tactics, in terms of message and targeting. It wouldn’t necessarily shield the company (or the industry) from other possible consequences. Using the tobacco industry for purposes of comparison, what if: state attorneys general sue for monetary damages; or, (not out of the realm of possibilities) the packaging has to carry a warning, perhaps along the lines of, “The unmoderated consumption of this product is linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.” Per-capita consumption of soft-drinks already is at a decade-long low, and such a warning surely would accelerate that trend.

Corporate tactics aside, the behind-the-scenes culprit is sugar. Other types of products are loaded with it, including candies, pastries, and cereals. They all have a vested interest in the outcome of the Coca-Cola suit. The health hazards cited in the suit, by the way, aren’t the only brickbats commonly hurled at sugar, to wit, dental cavities and hyperactivity.

Returning the discussion to soft-drinks and packaging, Coca-Cola and others have introduced smaller sizes, unlikely to satisfy critics whose concern is that the sugar ratio remains the same. And what about the industry’s increased reliance on alternative drinks, for example, energy drinks? Sugar AND caffeine? As for alternatives such as protein drinks, juices, coffees, and dairy, the sugar content still might be too sweet for some critics.

Then there’s reformulations. A trend being witnessed in soft-drinks and other industries is that of the 100-calorie product. One-hundred is a nice, round number that has psychological appeal to consumers accustomed to higher counts. The challenge is that those 100 calories must satisfy the sweet-tooth and delight those taste buds concentrated at the tip of the tongue that detect sweetness (a separate, but related issue is that of sugar substitutes). Put another way, if the product doesn’t taste good, packaging (no matter its amount of shelf-appeal) can’t sustain the product.

Retailers need to take note, also. One reason is that what affects national brands carries consequences for store brands (private labels). Store brands typically make a point of comparing themselves to national brands; additionally, store brands' packaging typically bears some resemblance to that of national brands.

Analogous to dropping a sugar cube in a pond, the widening, concentric circles spread to other types of enterprises that might not readily come to mind, for example, sweet shops and restaurants (especially fast-food, known for fountain drinks).

But sugar is not the only ingredient accused of health transgressions. Salt is another one, what with its links to hypertension, stroke, and heart disease, arguably involving as many product categories as sugar (if not more). Arguments also have been made for the inclusion of white flour to the list. The point being made is that every food and beverage has some exposure to criticism about one aspect or another regarding its composition, some more than others.

Food and beverage industries are the biggest end-users of packaging, and are experts in leveraging packaging for competitive advantage. On the other hand, “junk food” and “belly-wash” are pejoratives ascribed to packaged goods that are deemed to be mostly empty calories. Some critics widen the condemnation to include most packaged foods and beverages, citing preservatives and multi-syllabic additives.

Regardless of whether such criticism is fair, industries should embrace the challenge of devising packaging that protects the product, such that it is presented in as healthful, natural, and unadulterated a state as feasible. There’s no other way of stating it, at least, not without sugar-coating.


Sterling Anthony, CPP, is a consultant specializing in packaging, marketing, logistics, and human-factors. His contact information: 100 Renaissance Center, Box-176, Detroit, MI 48243; telephone 313-531-1875; [email protected];

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