For all the debate recently about the relative health merits (or, really, complete lack thereof) of soft drinks, even the soda industry’s most ardent critics probably never expected this: A coroner in New Zealand has ruled that Coke, in fact, kills.
The verdict culminates an almost three-year investigation into the death of Natasha Harris, a 31-year-old mother of eight who lived in Invercargill on the South Island of New Zealand. As we previously reported, Harris supposedly drank more than two gallons—yes, gallons—of Coke a day.
Harris’ mother-in-law testified at the coroner’s inquest last year that Harris was a bona fide Coke fiend and that she would “go crazy if she ran out...she would get the shakes, withdrawal symptoms, be angry, on edge and snappy.”
Oh, and Harris also smoked upwards of 30 cigarettes a day.
Given that she was drinking the equivalent of more than two pounds of sugar seven days a week, it’s not surprising that Harris had to have a number of teeth removed. The whole case takes on an even creepier Rosemary’s Baby-meets-Big Gulp vibe when you consider that one of her kids was born without tooth enamel. (!!!)
Then, in a tragicomic end to her addiction, Harris was found “slumped on the toilet, gasping for air” in late February 2010 by her partner, Christopher Hodgkinson, according to Global Post. Her immediate cause of death was listed as cardiac arrhythmia, likely owing to her daily caffeine intake, which was twice the recommended limit. An autopsy revealed that Harris also had an enlarged liver riddled with fat deposits, symptomatic of excessive sugar consumption.
Coroner David Crerar concluded that, “when all the 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.” However, the coroner went to pains to absolve the drink maker itself: “Coca-Cola cannot be held responsible for the health of consumers who drink unhealthy quantities of the product...Natasha Harris knew, or ought of have known and recognized, the health hazard of her chosen diet and lifestyle.”
With a free pass like that, you wouldn’t think the company would feel the need to respond. But Coke is increasingly touchy about the growing clamor surrounding the public health consequences of mass overconsumption of its products, a debate that’s starting to sound a lot like the one about cigarettes a generation or so ago (to wit, see Mark Bittman’s recent column in The New York Times).
So…here’s what the company had to say about Crerar’s findings: “The Coroner acknowledged that he could not be certain what caused Ms Harris’ heart attack. Therefore we are disappointed that the Coroner has chosen to focus on the combination of Ms Harris’ excessive consumption of Coca-Cola, together with other health and lifestyle factors, as the probable cause of her death. This is contrary to the evidence that showed the experts could not agree on the most likely cause.”
To that, we’d just like to give this summary: Two gallons of Coke a day…teeth extraction…baby born with no tooth enamel. We think those facts speak for themselves.
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Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.