Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the APNZ News Service office in Wellington.

Coca-Cola 'contributed' to death of woman

Natasha Marie Harris . Photo / Supplied
Natasha Marie Harris . Photo / Supplied

Coca-Cola says there is not enough evidence to link the death of an Invercargill woman with her excessive Coke drinking, despite a coroner's report that found otherwise.

Mother-of-eight Natasha Marie Harris, 31, died of cardiac arrhythmia caused by poor nutrition and the effects of caffeine, Southland Coroner David Crerar said.

Ms Harris, a mother of eight, died on February 25, 2010 after suffering years of ill health.

At an inquest into her death last April, Mr Crerar was told Ms Harris drank only Coke and consumed between six and 10 litres a day. That amount contained about twice the recommended safe daily caffeine intake.

In today's report, he recommended Coca-Cola warn consumers of the harm to their health if they drink excessive amounts of caffeine.

But the beverage giant said it was disappointed Mr Crerar had 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.

"This is contrary to the evidence that showed the experts could not agree on the most likely cause," the company said.

In his finding, released today, Mr Crerar also recommended the Ministry of Health consider clearer labels on soft drinks warning of the dangers of excessive sugar and caffeine.

The Ministry of Health said the recommendation should have been put to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) because of their role in food safety.

An MPI spokesman said New Zealand shared food labelling standards with Australia and any changes to labelling had to be agreed by both countries.

A review into the policy on guidelines for labelling caffeine products was being undertaken by Australia and New Zealand officials, he said.

The ministry would ensure the coroner's recommendations were considered as part of that review, and public consultation on the review will take place in April he said.

Ms Harris' partner Christopher Hodgkinson told the inquest that in the six months before her death, she had "no energy and was feeling sick all the time".

"She would get up and vomit in the morning."

She smoked about 30 cigarettes a day and hardly ate, sometimes eating only a snack at lunch.

But Ms Harris always needed Coke, Mr Hodgkinson said.

"(If unavailable she would) get the shakes, withdrawal symptoms, be angry, on edge and snappy."

His mother Vivienne Hodgkinson told the inquest all Ms Harris' teeth were rotten and had been pulled out. Some of her children were born without enamel on their teeth.

Mr Hodgkinson said despite Ms Harris suffering from tiredness, lethargy and a racing heart, she did not consult a doctor because she was afraid of them.

Mr Crerar said a daily caffeine intake of 400mg or less was considered safe for a healthy adult, and a daily consumption of 500mg was widely believed to lead to health problems.

One litre of Coke contains 97mg of caffeine, and Ms Harris was drinking up to 10 litres a day.

Coca-Cola told the inquest there were a number of possible causes of cardiac arrhythmia and it was not possible to conclude that drinking Coke was "a probable cause or a definite contributor to her sudden death".

Mr Crerar said Ms Harris and her family knew, or ought to have known and recognised, the health hazard of her chosen diet and lifestyle.

- APNZ

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