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First soft drinks obesity lawsuit set for Massachusetts

By Chris Mercer , 13-Feb-2006

A lawsuit aimed at getting soft drinks out of US schools on obesity grounds will be filed in Massachusetts, just as lawmakers there prepare to vote on a school junk food ban.

The class action lawsuit, aimed at sugary soft drinks in schools, will be filed imminently in the northern US state, BeverageDaily.com has learnt.

Lawyers bringing the suit said they also planned to launch legal action in other states soon afterwards.

They will target bottlers of soft drinks and allege that these companies were negligent and violated consumer protection laws by establishing so-called 'pouring rights' supply contracts with schools.

School boards in the area have been informed of their potential involvement in proceedings, which will inevitably touch on the processes by which soft drinks firms sealed supply deals with schools.

Professors Richard Daynard and John Banzhaf, both of whom have already taken on the tobacco giants in court, are leading the charge against soft drinks bottlers.

Daynard said of soft drinks: "We have a product that has been shown to make a material contribution to childhood and adolescent obesity and we have it in schools where the kids are required to be for six or seven hours per day."

Nearly half of all US schools had an exclusive, so-called 'pouring rights' contract with a beverage company in the 2003-04 school year, according to a report published by the US Government Accountability Office last August.

A loose network of around 20 lawyers, nutritionists and campaigners have been sharing information for possible litigation against soft drink firms since autumn 2004, said one source close to the issue.

The initial action in Massachusetts will put the state at the centre of America's battle against obesity. The House of Representatives there has been preparing to vote on a proposal to ban all junk food, including fizzy soft drinks, from schools.

A similar bill has been introduced by Rhode Island and another is reportedly working its way through the state of Indiana. A total 38 states considered school nutrition bills last year, most of which included a vending machine component. At least 14 laws have now been enacted.

A recent study on the use of litigation to combat obesity, appearing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, said it was likely lawsuits would be needed to tackle the problem, just as they were needed against tobacco firms.

The study, part-authored by Daynard, also said: "successful litigation does not always require a victory in court; the goal of litigation can be to change public perception of an industry and ultimately to induce a change in industry practices."

The American Beverage Association (ABA), backed by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, has attempted to head-off complaints by voluntarily banning fizzy drinks in elementary schools.

It also took on voluntary restrictions in middle and high schools, and announced just before Christmas that sales of regular soft drinks in schools dropped 24 percent between 2002 and 2004.

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