In a 55-page opinion issued last week, Judge John Gleeson of the US District Court in New York agreed to dismiss three of the thirteen claims brought against Coca-Cola, but said the remaining claims must still be examined in court. These include allegations of misleading advertising, fraudulent business acts and unfair methods of competition.
Health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is serving as co-counsel in the class-action suit, maintains that Coca-Cola is deceiving consumers by placing health claims on a product that is little more than soda without the bubbles.
Soda minus bubbles?
“The company claims that Vitaminwater variously reduces the risk of chronic disease, reduces the risk of eye disease, promotes healthy joints, and supports optimal immune function, and uses health buzz words such as ‘defense,’ ‘rescue,’ ‘energy,’ and ‘endurance’ on labels,” says CSPI.
“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.”
In reaction to Judge Gleeson’s decision not to dismiss the lawsuit, a Coca-Cola spokesperson said the opinion: "was not a decision on the merits, but simply a determination that the case can proceed beyond the initial pleadings stage. We believe plaintiff's claims are without merit and will ultimately be rejected."
Potential for confusion
The opinion, available here, highlights what is known as the ‘jelly bean rule’, which restricts the use of health claims – or implied claims of healthiness – to foods that meet certain minimum nutrient levels.
“The potential for confusion is heightened by the presence of other statements in vitaminwater’s labeling, such as the description of the product as a ‘vitamin enhanced water beverage’ and the phrases ‘vitamins + water = all you need’ and ‘vitamins+water = what’s in your hand’ which have the potential to reinforce a consumer’s mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water,” writes Judge Gleeson.