The parent company of Dr Pepper (now part of Keurig Dr Pepper) did not intentionally mislead consumers to believe Diet Dr Pepper promises weight loss or healthy weight management, and the company did not violate California's consumer fraud laws, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled.
In the decision filed Dec. 30, Judge Jay Bybee wrote California resident Shana Becerra had not adequately shown a reasonable consumer would associate drinking diet soda with health benefits. Becerra claimed the company misled consumers by using the word "diet" on its labels even though studies show aspartame, the artificial sweetener in Diet Dr Pepper, is likely to cause weight gain and has no weight loss benefit.
"Diet soft drinks are common in the marketplace," Bybee wrote in the decision. "Just because some consumers may unreasonably interpret the term differently does not render the use of 'diet' in a soda's brand name false or deceptive."
This is the latest ruling in a series of lawsuits against soda companies over the term "diet" on their product labeling. None of these lawsuits — which have also been filed against PepsiCo and Coca-Cola — has been successful so far.
Reuters said this decision could be the death knell for a similar lawsuit about Diet Coke, which Becerra also filed. She lost in a lower court and appealed to the 9th Circuit. The latter court dismissed her appeal Dec. 23 for lack of jurisdiction since she had the option to amend her complaint instead.
The ruling in the Diet Dr Pepper case shows how difficult it can be to prove claims that a soda maker is intentionally misleading consumers by using the label term "diet." The courts seem to be leaning on a dictionary definition that "diet" means a product with fewer calories than the "regular" version instead of conveying any health claims. This is the way that many beverage companies use the term; other words are often used to describe nutritional benefits to consumers.
This latest rash of court rulings involving diet soda could have a dampening effect on similar lawsuits in the future unless plaintiffs can make more convincing legal arguments. The Food and Drug Administration isn't likely to further define the term "diet" in response to legal actions, and the agency allows the term as long as it isn't false or misleading — a gray area that continues to prompt tough and expensive legal battles.
It's possible this situation will resolve itself as beverage manufacturers move away from artificial sweeteners and use of the term "diet" on their product labels. More natural drinks have recently been performing better than diet soda. Low- or no-calorie, sugar-free or naturally sweetened products — such as seltzer water and juice or reformulated soft drinks — may render the argument moot a lot faster than any court action.