Beverage Giants, the Next Big Tobacco? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Beverage Giants, the Next Big Tobacco?

Beverage Giants, the Next Big Tobacco?

By Tracy Moran


Because it’s time to let the fizz out of sugary drinks.

By Tracy Moran

You can almost hear the screams: “Mummy, I want my Capri Sun!” Much to parents’ glee and children’s dismay, a British grocery giant is yanking this and other sugary kiddie drinks from its shelves in a bid to tackle obesity. Carbonated drinks, though, remain untouched, filling refrigerator aisles with a helluva lot more sugar than our daily allowance.

Which makes me wonder: Why don’t companies do more to protect the rest of us? Given soaring diabetes and obesity rates, I say it’s high time to shake up the soda industry. Type 2 diabetics addicted to these sugary drinks should lead the charge by suing Big Soda. If it sounds nuts, remember that class-action lawsuits against Big Tobacco once seemed crazy too.

Diabetes is taking its toll on a huge proportion worldwide. In the U.K., more than one in 20 — 3.8 million people — have it, and the disease is currently taking up 10 percent of the National Health Service’s budget, to the tune of $16 billion a year. Within 20 years, experts expect it will draw on 17 percent of the coffers. And Brits are doing comparatively well: In the U.S., some 29.1 million people — nearly 10 percent of the population — have diabetes, 8 million of whom are estimated to be living undiagnosed. Research has shown that the costs associated with this scourge rose a whopping 41 percent between 2007 and 2012, jumping from $174 billion to $245 billion. So not only is diabetes killing us, it’s costing taxpayers and governments a bundle to boot.

Soda can be “more dangerous than so many other things we regulate and sell.”

Sure, sugar and soda aren’t solely to blame for diabetes, as Tracey Halliday, the American Beverage Association’s vice president of communications, tells OZY via email. She also argues that calories from beverages account for only about 6 percent of the American diet, and points out, fairly, that the information about sugar content is clearly labeled on cans and bottles. “We in the beverage industry are doing our part to help educate consumers about balancing calories,” Halliday writes. 

And yet: Education isn’t enough to combat sugar’s siren call. Firms sell soda filled with single servings of between 35 and 40-odd grams of sugar each — at least 10 grams more than the World Health Organization recommends for daily intake — without any recourse. Researchers have linked nearly 2 million cases of Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. and 79,000 cases in the U.K. to sugary drink consumption. Also worth noting is that Big Tobacco was still found liable for various things despite not being responsible for every case of lung cancer

Groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have campaigned for folks to stop gulping down these drinks for years. Director of Health Promotion Policy Jim O’Hara — who notably sidestepped my litigation idea — prefers to focus on support for sugar taxes and consumer awareness. O’Hara applauds the adoption of an excise tax in Berkeley, California, for example, noting that such tariffs “can generate the revenues which will support the prevention and treatment efforts needed for these diseases,” like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, while also reducing consumption. 


So what if hundreds of sugar and soda-addicted Type 2 diabetics got together and filed a class-action lawsuit to take on the beverage giants? “Many judges would laugh it out of court,” says Hassan Zavareei, a lawyer with public interest law firm Tycko & Zavareei, in Washington, D.C. But he does acknowledge that soda can be “more dangerous than so many other things we regulate and sell” and that the idea is not entirely far-fetched. 

The biggest obstacle, Zavareei says, would be a legal requirement that plaintiffs show their common issues outweigh individual issues: Diabetics consume different amounts of soda and suffer varying levels of the disease. But Zavareei notes that there are “plenty of important common issues that could predominate.” A couple of examples: Is sugar addictive? Are beverage giants deliberately trying to get us addicted? Then you would have to prove they’re liable by establishing that the firms are violating a law or are negligent in peddling drinks they know — or should know — can harm. Any of which, Zavareei hastens to add, would be “very, very difficult.”

“Anyone can file [such a lawsuit],” he says, noting that someone may have already tried. But to really do it “with the hope of changing policy,” he says, would require out-of-the box thinking and high-quality lawyers working together — probably working hand in hand with state attorneys general. 

So who’s in?

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