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Herald on Sunday editorial: Looking for somebody to blame

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Natasha Marie Harris was only 30 when she died, and her family say her excessive consumption of Coca-Cola played a part in her death. Photo / Supplied
Natasha Marie Harris was only 30 when she died, and her family say her excessive consumption of Coca-Cola played a part in her death. Photo / Supplied

In the mid-1980s, Harold and Candance Thorp of Seattle, in the American Pacific Northwest, sued the Jim Beam Brands Co for $4 million. They sought "lifetime assistance" for their son, who was born physically deformed and mentally retarded.

Candance attributed her son's predicament to the effects of Beam's biggest-selling product, a bourbon whiskey, as well she might have: she drank around half a bottle - 10 standard drinks or so - daily during her pregnancy, and she said she would not have done so if a bottle label had warned her.

Perhaps surprisingly, the case failed (though the US shortly thereafer became the first country to require alcohol containers to carry health warning labels). Even in a jurisdiction so given to finding someone to blame - and hold legally liable - for everything, the jury must have detected that the Thorps' plight was self-inflicted.

It is a case that some relatives of Natasha Marie Harris, the Invercargill mother of eight who died two years ago, would do well to ponder. A coroner found the 30-year-old drank at least seven litres a day of Coca-Cola and family members - with the conspicuous exception of Harris' sister - reportedly want the soft-drink manufacturer to put health warning labels on their bottles.

This long after the event, such an attitude cannot be ascribed to a grief-stricken loss of perspective, so it's worth wondering at their logic.

Harris, who also had a 30-a-day cigarette habit and ate poorly, made no secret of her Coke drinking and it takes very little nous to realise that seven litres a day of anything - even water - over a sustained period will be harmful. It was incumbent on the family to be speaking to Natasha when she was alive, rather than to the media (and, indirectly, the company) after she was dead.

Our legal system denies us the right to sue for personal injury, including death, except in pursuit of exemplary damages for intentional or reckless negligence, which Coca-Cola has plainly not engaged in.

Manufacturers of high-fat fast foods and high-sugar drinks could play good corporate citizens by using labelling that sends a message about moderation and maintaining a balanced diet.

But eating and drinking ourselves to death will always be our own fault. The development of a culture of blame, rather than of accepting personal responsibility, should be strenuously resisted.

- Herald on Sunday

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