02/19/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Soft Drink Warning Labels Face Criticism After Coroner's Finding On Natasha Harris' Coca-Cola Habit

Last week, a New Zealand coroner linked the 2010 death of Natasha Harris, a 31-year-old mother of eight, to health complications brought on by her excessive consumption of Coca-Cola.

The coroner, David Crerar, did not hold the Coca-Cola company responsible for the woman's death. However, he recommended that warning labels be placed on soft drinks in an effort to educate the public about the health risks associated with overconsumption of sugary, caffeinated beverages.

The suggestion is now facing criticism from both sides of the debate. While Coca-Cola and beverage industry associations have rejected the use of such labels as unfair, some critics of sugary drinks think that warnings alone might not be enough to impact public health.

In a Feb. 13 statement, Katherine Rich, chief executive of the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council, an industry association, said that "No regulatory system can legislate for extreme cases" such as Harris'.

According to depositions submitted to the coroner's inquest, Harris drank more than 2 gallons of Coke every day. Due to her habit, Crerar estimated that the woman's intake of caffeine was almost double the daily amount considered healthy. In addition, he estimated Harris consumed the equivalent of 2 pounds of sugar a day.

In an email to The Huffington Post, Coca-Cola expressed sympathy for Harris and her family but said that it does "not believe soft drinks should be singled out from other beverages and foods for additional labeling requirements," claiming that "[the] caffeine levels in Coke are less than many other commonly consumed beverages," such as instant coffee and tea.

While the coroner's finding linked excessive caffeine intake to the cardiac arrhythmia that killed Harris, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert, said he thinks the added sugar in such beverages is the real problem.

Freedhoff said he "wouldn't be opposed" to health warnings on packaging, since they've been shown effective in discouraging smoking, but he noted that in the case of soft drinks, labels alone might not be enough to impact public health.

"With warning labels the only intervention, I doubt we'd see huge change. Couple warning labels with taxes on added sugars, public health campaigns explaining the risks inherent to their consumptions, limits on cups sizes ... and inclusion of added sugars as risky to school curricula, and I'd bet we'd see a big difference," Freedhoff wrote in an email to HuffPost.

In literature about sugary drinks and obesity, the Harvard School of Public Health claims that "rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic," and cited a two-decade study that linked consumption of sugary soft drinks with an increased risk of heart disease in men.

A related study by the Department of Nutrition at Simmons College found a similar disease link in women, noting in conclusion that:

"Regular consumption of [sugar sweetened beverages] is associated with a higher risk of [coronary heart disease] in women, even after other unhealthful lifestyle or dietary factors are accounted for."

This finding is significant because critics of the New Zealand coroner's decision, which include Coca-Cola and trade associations, have pointed to health factors such as Harris' poor diet and heavy smoking habit as a way to detract from the role of sweetened beverages in her death.

A review of policy guidelines on the addition of caffeine to foods is the subject of a current working group between Australian and New Zealand ministries, a spokesman for the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries told Stuff.co.nz.

This isn't the first time that Coca-Cola has faced criticism from health advocates this year. In January, an ad claiming that lower-sugar and sugar-free Coca-Cola products could be part of the obesity solution was roundly criticized.

After PepsiCo agreed to remove an additive from its Gatorade sports drinks following a flurry of consumer complaints, an online petition was started to ask Coca-Cola to do the same with its Powerade brand sports drinks.

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