The story of the death of a New Zealand woman who would drink between six and 10 litres of Coca-Cola a day needs to be treated with caution as it does the rounds of the world’s news media.
For beneath all the sensationalism lies a truly tragic story; and its antagonist is a global corporation—one that is all too easy to criticise.
But what it lacks the most is a pinch of common sense.
The woman, Natasha Harris, a 30-year-old mother of eight from the south of the country, died in 2010 after sustained consumption of huge amounts of the fizzy drink. This week, the coroner found that she would not have died had it not been for her dependence on the drink.
Harris’s Coke habit led to her consuming up to two-and-a-half times the safe limit of caffeine and almost one kilo sugar each day.
When she died, she was suffering from an enlarged liver and an electrolyte imbalance, among other conditions. Most if not all of her teeth had fallen out over time and there were signs of a caffeine overdose. At least one of her children was born without tooth enamel, according to reports.
"She had no energy and was feeling sick all the time,” her boyfriend, Chris Hodgkinson, told the inquest. “She would get up and vomit in the morning. She would get moody and get headaches if she didn't have any Coke, and also feel low in energy."
At the end of the inquest, the Southland coroner, David Crerar, said Harris would not have died were it not for her dependence on Coca-Cola.
"I find that, when all of the available evidence is considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died," he said.
As a result, the media, pressure groups and politicians are jumping on the reactionary bandwagon and calling for special labelling for soft, fizzy drinks. (Of course, there have been campaigns for such written warnings for some time across Australasia, but many of these figures have only just found their voices.)
Of course Coke was responsible for Harris’s death—of that there is no doubt. But headlines like “Coroner takes on soft drinks giant” and moves to vilify a fizzy drink because of this case are not helpful.
The result on the body of a constant diet of Coke and very little else for a lengthy period should not surprise anyone.
However, it does come as a surprise to find that Harris was unaware of its effects. She was clearly addicted to the drink and she, and those around her, should have known this. That they claimed not to have considered her Coke habit dangerous beggars belief—not least because of her known symptoms.
People develop addictions to all sorts of things, from pizza and cakes to fruit and mineral water. It doesn’t matter what it is they eat or drink, anything can harm the body when consumed in high enough and regular doses.
As is so often the case with drug abuse, food and beverage addiction can be the result of other issues, such as psychological problems.
When Harris began to form a dependence on Coca-Cola it was not because the drink lacked a label to warn her against it.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola Oceania’s reaction to the coroner’s finding defies logic. Subsequent to the inquest, the company came out all guns blazing, even dispatching a spokesman to criticise the coroner’s decision and saying it should not have focused on Harris’s addiction.
“We are disappointed that the coroner has chosen to focus on the combination of Ms Harris's excessive consumption of [Coke], together with other health and lifestyle factors, as the probable cause of her death,” he said
"The safety of our products is paramount. All of our products have a place in an active, healthy lifestyle that includes a sensible, balanced diet and regular physical activity."
By issuing this rebuttal, Coca-Cola is being disingenuous to say the least. Instead of issuing its condolences and lying low, the company has attempted to question what most people see as common sense and deny that Coke was instrumental in Harris’s death. In this instance, Big Fizzy has given the Big Tobacco defence when it really didn’t need to.
At the end of the day, this is a sad story about the death of an addicted woman, not about the positive or negative properties of a soft drink. It is about human behaviour, not about formulation. Let’s use our common sense.
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