Sports-drink's health claims provoke lawsuits

A sports drink promoted as a healthy alternative to sugary sodas is at the centre of potential class-action lawsuits launched in Calgary and Vancouver.

Sugar-laden product marketed deceptively, documents allege

A sports drink promoted as a healthy alternative to sugary sodas is at the centre of potential class-action lawsuits launched in Calgary and Vancouver.

The legal actions claim the companies behind Vitaminwater have been misleading consumers into thinking the product is healthy, when in fact a bottle contains more than 30 grams of sugar.

The makers of Vitaminwater face potential class-action lawsuits in Alberta and B.C. over how the product is marketed. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
In Calgary, the law firm Cuming and Gillespie filed a statement of claim with the Court of Queen's Bench in February, alleging Coca-Cola Ltd. and Energy Brands Inc. deceived plaintiffs with Vitaminwater's marketing. 

The Vancouver law firm Hordo and Bennett filed a similar claim in January with the British Columbia Supreme Court.   

Both firms declined interview requests from CBC News. 

The Alberta statement of claim names the plaintiff as Calgary resident Larry Guilloux. The lawsuit says Guilloux consumed Vitaminwater regularly and believed it was a healthy alternative to soft drinks.

According to the statement of claim, Guilloux would not have bought the drink if he'd known how much sugar it contained. 

A 591-millilitre bottle of Vitaminwater has 120 calories. By comparison, a regular 355-millilitre can of Coke has 160 calories.   

The Alberta statement of claim takes issue with the name Vitaminwater and its labelling — a "nutrient enhanced water beverage" — and casts doubt on the health benefits of the drink. 

None of the allegations in the statements of claim have been proven in court. 

Nor have the lawsuits been certified yet as class actions.

Company defends the product

In a written statement, Coca-Cola told CBC News it did not have any comment on the pending litigation but stressed Glaceau — the Coca-Cola subsidiary that makes Vitaminwater — will take "all necessary steps to vigorously defend any litigation filed against our company." 

The statement adds that the beverage's label clearly display ingredients and calorie content.

Before a court certifies the plaintiffs' claims as class actions, it must conclude there are important common legal issues that can be decided together.

Legal scholar Jasminka Kalajdzic told CBC News that proving each person who bought Vitaminwater relied on what they thought were the supposed health benefits of the drinks could be hard. 

But the University of Windsor professor predicted lawyers for the plaintiffs will have an advantage since they are claiming the makers of Vitaminwater breached provincial statutes that define deceptive marketing. 

"So, in my opinion, it's very much a different ball game," Kalajdzic said.