Courtesy of Coca-Cola via Instagram

In the city of Atlanta, the corporate headquarters for Coca-Cola is almost as popular as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and gravesite of the slain civil rights leader.

But after decades of sponsoring events and making commercials that have endeared Coke to many African-Americans, a lawsuit recently filed in D.C. Superior Court charges that the amounts of sugar the beverage company puts in its products doesn’t make it a real friend to the black community at all.

“In the District of Columbia, more people die of diabetic-related illnesses than from murder, cancer and AIDS combined,” said Rev. William Lamar, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in the District, who filed the lawsuit last week. “Our goal is stop corporate audacity because it affects our community.”

The suit charges that despite scientifically established links between sugary drinks and obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, Coca-Cola continues to engage in deceptive practices in the marketing of its products to the African-American community.

Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., and the Praxis Project, a nonprofit organization focused on building healthier communities, are also parties in the lawsuit.

“This is about saving lives, this is not about sponsorships for a dinner,” Coates said, referring to Coca-Cola’s recent backing of the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual legislative conference. “When people look at the amount of sugar served in a Coca-Cola and compare that to the recommendations of the American Heart Association, they will come around.”

The lawsuit seeks an injunction under the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which protects District residents from improper trade practices.

The injunction calls for Coke and the American Beverage Association to stop engaging in unfair and deceptive marketing of sugar-sweetened drinks — including any direct or indirect claim that the drinks do not promote obesity, Type 2 diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.

For its part, Coca-Cola called the suit “legally and factually meritless” and vowed to fight the charges.

“The Coca-Cola Company understands that we have a role to play in helping people reduce their sugar consumption,” the organization said in an issued statement. “That’s why we support the recommendation of the World Health Organization that people should limit their intake of added sugar to no more than 10 percent of their total daily calorie intake. We have begun a journey toward that goal.

“So we are taking action to offer people more drinks in smaller, more convenient sizes, reducing sugar in many of our existing beverages, and making more low and no-sugar beverage choices available and easier to find at local stores,” the company said. “We’ll also continue making calorie and nutrition information clear and accessible so people can make more informed choices for themselves and their families without the guesswork.”

In a 2013 interview with CNN, Coca-Cola COO James Quincey said that “the experts are clear — the academics, government advisers, diabetes associations … a calorie is a calorie.”

But Coates said this is just not true.

“The fact of the matter is many of our politicians have been misinformed about the benefits of sugary sweet beverages,” he said.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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