BUSINESS
10/23/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2014

Vitaminwater Pressured To Pay People Who Thought It Was A Health Drink

Earlier this month, Red Bull agreed to pay up to $10 to anyone who's ever bought a Red Bull to settle claims that it misled customers into thinking the energy drink “gives you wings.”

Now a nonprofit wants Vitaminwater to offer a similar payout.

Truth In Advertising, a Connecticut-based group that fights against deceptive advertising, is trying to get compensation for people who bought Vitaminwater thinking it was more healthful than it actually is. To do this, the group is pressuring a judge to reject a class-action settlement over the brand's advertising.

Earlier this month, Coca-Cola, which owns Vitaminwater, agreed to pay $1.2 million to end a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of residents of Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and the U.S. Virgin Islands that said Vitaminwater was making exaggerated health claims on its bottles and listing calorie counts for an unrealistic serving size. The company also agreed to list the total calories per bottle and add “see nutrition facts for more detail” to Vitaminwater labels.

But the settlement's critics point out that Coca-Cola had already made these labeling changes, meaning the settlement won't make any difference to Coca-Cola. Truth In Advertising wants the company to do more. It wants a payout for customers in the class-action states who bought the drink, and it wants Coca-Cola to change Vitaminwater's name and sell it as a soda, instead of a hydration or sports drink.

“Ideally, what we want is for Coke to compensate consumers for being deceived, similar to the Red Bull settlement,” Bonnie Patten, the executive director of the group, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. The group also wants Vitaminwater to end what it calls “deceptive marketing” by changing its name, Patten said.

A judge has to approve the current settlement on Dec. 2, but Truth In Advertising wants residents of the four states and territory listed in the lawsuit to send letters to lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants and court clerks in several locations before the Nov. 3 filing deadline and express opposition. Then, the settlement could be reconfigured, with a payout for those affected.

Coca-Cola may be eager to get the settlement approved because the case is similar to another one from 2009 that's still languishing in New York courts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest took Coca-Cola to court in 2009, accusing it of deceptive marketing and of violating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s rules against fortifying junk food with vitamins.

That lawsuit targeted Vitaminwater’s claims that its drinks could reduce the risk of chronic diseases, improve joint function and boost mental and physical wellness, according to court documents. The company has since replaced such blurbs with conversationally written anecdotes hinting at how the drinks, which contain about 33 grams of sugar per 20-ounce bottle -- or almost a third of the sugar in a bottle of Coke -- can improve focus, remedy alcoholic hangovers or boost immune systems.

Danielle Dubois, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, said the company was “pleased to reach an amicable resolution” of the class-action suit, but declined to comment on the earlier New York case. She did not immediately respond to questions about what prompted the company to change the blurbs on its bottles.

Steve Gardner, who as litigation director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed the original lawsuit in 2009, told HuffPost on Wednesday that the class-action settlement isn't really punishing the brand because Vitaminwater had already changed its labels. He said his nonprofit group was considering filing an objection to accompany Truth in Advertising's efforts with the judge.

“All the things they said Coke has agreed to change, Coke has now put in writing, but in reality they had already done,” he said. “The settlement is worthless to anyone in the public interest, the class members and the consumers, but it’s very profitable for the lawyers who settled it.”

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