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Diet soda makers sued over "misleading" ads

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Drinking diet soda is a way to help you lose weight, right? Not according to several federal lawsuits. Separate cases against Coca-Cola (KO), PepsiCo (PEP) and Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS) -- the three largest US makers of carbonated beverages -- allege that their marketing of diet sodas deceives consumers into thinking that the beverages will help them lose or manage weight because scientific studies have shown the opposite is true.

These lawsuits, filed Oct. 16 in federal court by the same plaintiffs' attorneys use nearly identical language. They center on the use of aspartame, a sweetener first used in 1965 that has been controversial for decades. The suits allege that the companies' use of the word "diet" in the beverages' "false misleading and unlawful" marketing could make a "reasonable consumer" think the drinks are a diet aid.

"What's been going on is clearly deceptive advertising," said Abraham Melamed, one of the attorneys behind the case. "In our opinion, it's one of the biggest consumer scams in the last 50 years, and it has to stop. There's a strong sense of urgency because there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of consumers out there that are being deceived on a daily basis."

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola denounced the lawsuit against it as "completely meritless" and vowed to "vigorously defend against it," according to Kate Hartman, a company spokeswoman.

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"Diet Coke is a great-tasting, zero calorie beverage that is and always has been properly labeled and marketed in compliance with all applicable regulations,"

Plano, Texas-based  Dr Pepper Snapple, whose brands include UP, A&W Root Beer, and Canada Dry Ginger Ale, "stand by our products and believe these lawsuits to be completely without merit," according to Chris Barnes,  a company spokesman.

PepsiCo., headquarted in Purchase, New York, declined to comment.

Health problems with aspartame have been an issue for years. The industry-backed Calorie Control Council called the sugar substitute "one the most researched food ingredients/additives in the world," adding that it "has a long history of safe use."

"Many Americans face challenges in achieving a healthy lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet with appropriate calorie intake and physical activity," wrote Robert Rankin, President of the Calorie Control Council, in an email. "Reduced-calorie products are an important tool in helping consumers improve their diet and lose weight"

Of course, the attorneys suing the beverage companies have plenty of studies of their own.

A report published in July found that artificial sweeteners didn't lead to any significant weight loss in more than 1,000 participants in seven clinical trials. Data from 30 studies involving more than 400,000 participants showed a link between artificial sweeteners and obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the lawsuits, which were brought by six consumers who have struggled with obesity for years.

Furthermore, they allege that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple shouldn't be permitted to retain the payments they received by "virtue of deceptive and unlawful business practices." They're also seeking a halt to what they call the companies' misleading advertising.

Pepsi bringing back aspartame to diet sodas 03:43

These lawsuits come as worries about health risks have pushed per-capita soda consumption to a multi-decade low. Bottled water eclipsed soda in 2016 to became the No. 1 drink sold in the US. According to Beverage Marketing, volumes for carbonated beverages have fallen for the past 12 years, with diet sodas falling at a faster pace than full-calorie ones. Soft-drink companies, though, have bolstered their bottom lines by selling smaller portion sizes and raising prices.

"There's a general dissatisfaction with the current crop of diet sweeteners," said Gary Hemphill, Beverage Marketing's managing director.

In an effort to boost sales of Diet Pepsi, PepsiCo Chief Executive Indra Nooyi decided in 2015 to take aspartame out of the beverage -- only to bring it back a year later in the wake of an unexpected backlash from consumers. The company now offers Diet Pepsi with or without the controversial sweetener.

Dr. Michael Jacobson, senior scientist at the Center for Science and the Public Interest, argues that drinking diet sodas instead of regular sodas can help people lose weight, though ideally, people shouldn't be drinking either carbonated beverage. Diet sodas have been linked to cancers in some animal studies, but Jacobson noted the risk is small.

"It's not like smoking cigarettes," he said.

Updates story at 10 AM to add comment from Dr. Pepper Snapple.

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