Black Pastors’ Crusade Against Coca Cola: Morally Justifiable, Legally Questionable

Black pastors in DC claim that "the sweets kill more than the streets" in a lawsuit against soda giant Coca Cola (American Progress).
Black pastors in Washington DC claim that “the sweets kill more than the streets” in a lawsuit against soda giant Coca Cola (American Progress).

Black pastors in the Washington DC area have been seeing too many of their parishioners die, and they believe they have found the culprit: sugary drinks! And they have a point. As Reverend Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church suggests, “It’s become really clear to me that we’re losing more people to the sweets than to the streets.” It is a sad reality that a wide variety of vices…be they tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or sugary foods and drinks, often disproportionately affect urban and minority communities in the United States.

But is a lawsuit against Coca Cola and other sugary beverage manufactures the answer? Coates and a public policy concern called Praxis Group have filed a lawsuit against Coca Cola in DC Superior Court, which claims that the industry is intentionally misleading and confusing consumers about the potentially harmful health consequences of downing that ice cold Coca Cola. The claims in the suit seem to curiously parallel the public health class action lawsuits of yesteryear, against the tobacco industry, which resulted in a series of multi-million dollar judgments.

Scientists, doctors, and nutritionists are largely in agreement that the links between excessive sugar intake and a host of health problems are well documented. Obesity, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and diabetes are often blamed, at least in part, on sugar. Yet, if sugar is to blame, where does one draw the legal or ethical or moral line? Coca Cola has deep pockets and is a very ubiquitous public face of “sugar”…an easy target for a lawsuit if you will. Yet, fat and sugar are found in a whole host of foods and beverages manufactured by a wide variety of business concerns. It hardly seems fair to merely single out Coca Cola.

With all due respect to the Reverend Coates and his colleagues…it would appear that they would be well-suited to make personal responsibility a greater part of the equation.

Even if it can be proven that Coca Cola and Pepsi and Schweppes and other sugary drink titans are causing irreparable societal harm…are we as a society really at the point where we are going to tell adult men and women what to do with their beverage choices?

From a libertarian point of view there are two components to Coates’ campaign: the moral and the legal.

From a moral standpoint Reverend Coates is absolutely right to call attention to the perils of sugar. That may sound extreme, but two or three generations ago, the “perils of tobacco” were not widely known and smoking was considered as American as apple pie and Ford automobiles.

Excessive consumption of sugar can be hazardous to your health, especially when coupled with other problematic behaviors like a sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, poor diet, or drug abuse.

But perhaps Reverend Coates’ time would be better spent instilling a sense of personal responsibility not merely in his parishioners, but in all Americans. There is a role for government and community and family when it comes to personal behavior, but ultimately we, as individuals, are responsible for the choices we make.

Drinking a six-pack of beer at a party on occasion is not going to kill you. Drinking excessively on a regular basis could put your health in immediate jeopardy.

Smoking a joint a few times a year is likely inconsequential in the grand scheme of your health. Regular usage of marijuana is likely to lead to severe physical, emotional, and mental repercussions.

Eating a Big Mac or Whopper a couple of times a month, along with some fries and a large soda, sounds quite reasonable. Making fast food a regular part of your weekly diet should raise alarm bells.

Chewing coca leaves has long been valued by indigenous South Americans for combating hunger and fatigue. Concentrating thousands of coca leaves into cocaine paste and snorting it could lead to cardiac arrest.

Yes…the government has some role in promoting the health of its citizens. (As a libertarian I wince a bit to say even this).

But…at the end of the day it is the individual who is responsible, exercising his or her free will, to make their own choices.

From a legal standpoint, Coates’ lawsuit raises serious questions. I would venture to bet that the suit is likely to be tossed out of court rather quickly. It should be readily apparent to any intellectually sound human being, even to adolescents and children, that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. It is common sense that fatty, salty, and sugary foods are to be consumed in moderation.

If Coates’ lawsuit succeeds, it would raise a troubling precedent, and open the floodgates to a whole host of meritless lawsuits against a whole host of companies. If a black pastor in the DC suburbs can sue Coca Cola for leading to diabetes, obesity, and hypertension in his parishioners, then where do we draw the line?

We can imagine Major League ballparks getting sued for peddling hot dogs full of fat preservatives and nitrates. Or Pizza Hut for not advising its customers about the fat content of their delicious deep dish cheese pizza. Or Argentine cattle ranchers for not warning American consumers that eating 10 or 15 servings of beef a week could lead to obesity. Or movie theaters for drizzling their popcorn with delicious, but deadly, melted butter.

And while we’re at it, how about Netflix? Netflix may be the deadliest company of all because with just a $10 monthly subscription, they do more than any organization in the world to encourage people to sit around watching their highly addictive and oh-so-entertaining series like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Homeland. But why stop there? Television and laptop manufactures also bear responsibility…after all, they manufacture the devices used to stream Netflix. And, let’s not forget the furniture manufacturers. If it weren’t for chairs and sofas and loveseats and Lazy Boy recliners, Americans wouldn’t be able to “veg” in front of the TV…they’d have to stand.

So ultimately, with total sincerity, I do applaud Reverend Coates for bringing attention to this issue; it is a serious one. But his attempt to deal with the situation by filing a lawsuit against Coca Cola is misguided and could lead to disastrous consequences for American business. Rather than suing Coke for damages, Reverend Coates could become the public face of a nationwide campaign to encourage people to make responsible choices in their daily lives…and remind parents that healthy eating and drinking habits start with them.

Let’s be reasonable here: Drinking a couple of sodas a week is just fine. Drinking a coke or ginger ale or root beer with every meal is a serious problem. Finally, even with all the governments and communities and educators and ministers and role models and parents and friends in the world telling you that you need to make good choices in your life…at the end of the day, the only one who can make the right choices for you in your life…is you.

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