A New Zealand coroner has taken on the world's most valuable brand name in a case that is likely to reverberate around the world.
Southland coroner David Crerar has found that mother-of-eight Natasha Harris died from drinking too much Coke.
Ms Harris, of Invercargill, died aged 30 in February 2010. Evidence at her inquest showed she drank up to 10 litres of "classic" Coke every day – equal to more than twice the recommended safe daily limit of caffeine, and almost one kilogram of sugar.
Coca-Cola has argued that the huge quantities of Coke she drank could not be proven to have contributed to her death.
But in findings issued yesterday, Mr Crerar said Ms Harris would not have died if it wasn't for her dependence on the drink.
"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 the soft drink company was not to blame for her death, although its product was a contributing factor.
He recommended the Government consider imposing caffeine and sugar warnings on soft drinks, such as those already compulsory on energy drinks.
In the months leading up to her death, Ms Harris' health had deteriorated, partner Chris Hodgkinson told the inquest. "She had no energy and was feeling sick all the time . . . She would get up and vomit in the morning."
He said her Coke habit had become an addiction: "She would get moody and get headaches if she didn't have any Coke, and also feel low in energy."
Mr Crerar found that she died from cardiac arrhythmia after Mr Hodgkinson found her slumped on the toilet, gasping for air. She suffered from a myriad medical conditions, including a racing heart and "absent teeth", which her family says had rotted out from Coke consumption.
She drank between six and 10 litres a day. Mr Crerar estimated that, at the 10l level, she was consuming 2-1/2 times the recommended daily amount of caffeine, and more than 11 times the recommended sugar intake.
Those ingredients, combined with a poor diet, caused her to develop an enlarged liver, an electrolyte imbalance and, ultimately, led to her death. She also had symptoms of caffeine overdose.
In a statement yesterday,Coca-Cola Oceania spokesman Josh Gold said the coroner should not have focused on Ms Harris' Coke "addiction", because one of the contributing expert witnesses – Professor Johan Duflou, a forensic pathologist contracted by Coca-Cola to give evidence – disagreed with the other expert witnesses.
"The coroner acknowledged that he could not be certain what caused Ms Harris' heart attack," Mr Gold said. "Therefore we are disappointed that the coroner has chosen to focus on the combination of Ms Harris' excessive consumption of [Coke], together with other health and lifestyle factors, as the probable cause of her death.
"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."
Ms Harris's mother, Lynette, said on Tuesday that she did not hold Coca-Cola responsible for her death.
"It was her choice to drink Coke. She didn't like water or tea or coffee, and she didn't eat much either, and that had a lot to do with it."
Mr Hodgkinson said warning labels should be put on Coke bottles, especially for the benefit of children.
"I am glad the coroner has come to a conclusion, finally, after three years. I always knew Coke played a big part in her death.
"So long as they get the warnings out there, I will be happy. I don't want any other kids to go through what our kids have gone through."
A Ministry of Primary Industries spokesman said New Zealand shared food labelling standards with Australia, and any changes to labelling had to be agreed by both countries.
The ministry was currently chairing a trans-Tasman working group reviewing policy guidelines on the addition of caffeine to foods. Public consultation would take place in April, and Mr Crerar's recommendations would be considered as part of that review.
Mr Crerar recommends that health authorities and Coca-Cola consider issuing warnings on soft drinks.
"The hazards to the health of the consumers of excessive quantities of sugar and caffeine contained in carbonated drinks could be more clearly emphasised.
"Consideration should be given to either lowering the caffeine percentage limit or creating a more specific warning such as those printed on [energy drinks] produced and marketed by Coca-Cola."
In the coroner's findings, Professor Doug Sellman of the National Addiction Centre said Coke should be added to an international list of addictive substances.
"Growing neurobiological research is strongly indicating that some people can develop a compulsive habit related to certain highly palatable foods, that looks very similar to the same behavioural pattern observed in a drug addiction."
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