January 30 and 31/Atlanta/Health Insurance Law Weekly and Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- The Coca-Cola Company has been served notice a class action lawsuit filed over what the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says are deceptive and unsubstantiated claims on its VitaminWater line of beverages.

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 company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function.

In fact, CSPI nutritionists attest, the 33g 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.

CSPI's litigation department is serving as co-counsel in the suit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California. The other law firms involved in the case are Reese Richman LLP and Whatley Drake & Kallas LLC.

"When I bought VitaminWater, frankly I thought I was doing myself a favor health-wise," said the plaintiff, San Francisco, California, resident James Koh, who used to purchase and drink VitaminWater after working out at the gym. "I was attracted by the prospect of getting extra vitamins, but I had no idea that I was actually getting almost a Coke's worth of sugar and calories. There's no way I would have spent money on that, had I known."

While it is true that vitamins do play various roles in the human body, the statements on VitaminWater labels go far beyond even the loose, so-called "structure/function claims" allowed by the Food and Drug Administration and cross the line into outright fraud, according to CSPI.

Moreover, VitaminWater contains between 0-1% juice, despite the full names of the drinks, which include "endurance peach mango" and "focus kiwi strawberry," and "xxx blueberry pomegranate acai," among others. A press release for the "xxx" drink claims its antioxidants makes the drinker "last longer" in some unspecified way; in any event, it has no blueberry, pomegranate or acai juice, nor do the others have any cranberry, grapefruit, dragon fruit, peach, mango, kiwi or strawberry juice.

A Classic Tale
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has decided to drop the "Classic" from the "Coca-Cola Classic" tagline. The change coincides with a global campaign launched earlier in January called "Open Happiness." "Classic" was only used in the United States.

Coke spokesman Scott Williamson said the timing was right to create a consistency around the globe. He was quick to point out that the flavor will not change. The lettering on the bottle will have the phrase "Coke Classic original formula" to remind people that it is the same flavor, Williamson assured

"We've taken very deliberate steps to ensure that people know the Coke Classic they know and love remains the same," he said.

Coke and Pepsi have both been dealing with a challenging U.S. soft-drink market. U.S. soft-drink sales volume fell 2.3% in 2007, the third straight year of declines. When 2008 numbers are reported, they are expected to be down, too.

Coke added Classic to the label in 1985 in the U.S. as it brought back the original formula following consumer backlash over the introduction of New Coke.

Last year in an interview with the Journal-Constitution, Don Keough, president of Coca-Cola during the introduction of New Coke, talked about the decision to replace and then bring back the original Coke. Some outsiders called it a terrible mistake. Others suggested it was a brilliant marketing move to stir interest in Coke again.

Keough said Coke realized it made a mistake and recognized that the consumers owned the Coke brand. He jokingly said his tombstone might be etched with the phrase "he's not that dumb, and he's not that smart," a reference to a similar line he ad-libbed in announcing the return of the original formula.

From the February 2, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition