Coca-Cola gets served a lawsuit by 2 pastors

Two Washington, D.C.-area church pastors are suing Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association, alleging they deceive the public when they sell soda using happy, healthy messaging.

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Two pastors from Washington, D.C., have filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association saying the organizations have purposely deceived the public about sugar-sweetened beverages and their impact on health.

"The background of this lawsuit is that there's an epidemic of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and a range of other degenerative diseases in the black and Latino communities, and really throughout America. For me, as a pastor, I see the toll it takes on families and children when they lose their parents much too soon," Delman Coates, the pastor at Mt. Ennon Baptist Church, in Clinton, Maryland, told CBS News.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in D.C. Superior Court on behalf of Coates and William Lamar, the senior pastor at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.

"It is a matter of life and death in our communities," Lamar told CBS News.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012 research showed daily regular soda and fruit drink consumption was most common among black and Hispanic Americans.

Other studies have linked drinking sugary beverages to diabetes, heart disease, and higher death rates.

What's more, half of all African-Americans and 42 percent of Latinos are obese, compared to just over a third of whites in the U.S. Drinking soda from a young age was also found to be "a particularly strong predictor" of a future higher body mass index (BMI) for young black children, a 2016 study in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities reported.

"It breaks my heart and I'm saddened by the way in which we're losing so many people. I'm losing more people to the sweets than to the streets," Coates told CBS News.

Coke commercials often feature young, slender people gulping the fizzy beverage, smiling and sharing good times, but the pastors say those images are misleading.

"Marketing for Coca-Cola is focused around health and fun and showing very sexy bodies in their advertising. You never see an obese person. If the people are consuming Coca-Cola at this rate, there is no way those bodies would look like that," said Lamar.

"It's almost as if they are selling joy. They are equating this product with the things that people are hoping for – joy, smiles, family. But this product will not deliver that. It delivers the exact opposite. Silence around this issue is violence," Lamar said.

In addition to deceptive marketing, the lawsuit claims the soda maker and beverage trade association have "sought deceptively to switch the focus from sugar-sweetened beverages to inactivity as the key driver of obesity and related epidemics, including through their expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on research and programs that almost exclusively highlight exercise."

Maia Kats, a lawyer with the Center for Science in the Pubic Interest, told CBS News, "Their advertising campaigns do indicate that light exercise enables you to reward yourself with a Coca-Cola, but that's deceptive."

She said the company also pays bloggers to compare the calories in their sweetened soda to a similar number of calories in a serving of almonds, but that the nutritional comparison is also misleading because nuts are more nutritionally dense.

"That muddies the science," Kats said.

Coates said the fight against the beverage company resonates for him in a deeper way. 

"As a person of African-American descent in this country and with a knowledge of the history, I'm deeply saddened by the way African-American slaves were used for the production of sugar and now African-Americans are dying because of sugar," he said.

As church leaders, Lamar and Coates said they're fighting an uphill battle in their efforts to encourage people in their communities — including an increasing number of African-American adults and children with prediabetes and diabetes — to live a healthier lifestyle.

"We are challenged by the messages they're receiving from the beverage industry and companies like Coca-Cola," said Coates.

Lamar added, "Our hope is that Coca-Cola will discontinue marketing these drinks as something that is healthful and healthy."

CBS News reached out to Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association for their response but has yet to hear back. 

In a statement to the Washington Post, Coca-Cola dismissed the pastors' charges and denied the merits a previous lawsuit they filed and then withdrew in California, but plan to refile:

"The allegations here are likewise legally and factually meritless, and we will vigorously defend against them," the statement said. "The Coca-Cola Company understands that we have a role to play in helping people reduce their sugar consumption."

The American Beverage Association also defended the industry's conduct.

"America's beverage companies know we have an important role to play in addressing our nation's health challenges. That's why we're engaging with health groups and community organizations to drive a reduction in the sugar and calories Americans get from beverages," the ABA said in a statement to the Washington Post. "Unfounded accusations like these won't do anything to address health concerns, but the actions we're taking, particularly in areas where obesity rates are among the highest, can make a difference."

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com