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Coke to change Vitaminwater labels to settle U.S. consumer lawsuit

NEW YORK, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co agreed to change labels on its Vitaminwater beverages to resolve a lawsuit claiming it overstated their health benefits, but will not owe damages to consumers who alleged they were misled into buying the drinks.

Under a settlement made public late Wednesday and ending more than six years of litigation, Coca-Cola would add the words “with sweeteners” in two places on Vitaminwater bottles, and display calorie counts more prominently.

It would also stop making some claims about the beverages, including the phrase “vitamins + water = all you need” and that drinking Vitaminwater may improve metabolic or immune functions or reduce the risk of eye disease.

The settlement requires approval by a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York.

Coca-Cola would begin making the changes within three months, and complete them within two years.

The Atlanta-based company would also pay up to $2.73 million to cover fees and expenses of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Food and beverage companies are often targeted in lawsuits claiming that their products are less healthy than advertised.

PepsiCo Inc in 2013 agreed to stop calling its “Naked” juices “all natural” as part of a $9 million settlement.

Vitaminwater is part of a beverage category sometimes called “enhanced water,” filling a gap between soft drinks and water.

“We are pleased to reach an amicable resolution of these cases,” a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said. “Although we remain confident in our legal position, it simply made no sense to continue this costly legal battle.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the law firms Scott + Scott LLP and Reese LLP.

In court papers, the plaintiffs’ lawyers called the accord reasonable given the litigation risks, and said that even if Coca-Cola could settle for more “it is more important that a class receive some relief than possibly ‘yet more’ relief.”

Maia Kats, director of litigation for the CSPI, said: “Injunctive relief is critical to protecting consumers moving forward, and our plaintiffs fully support that goal and end.”

Vitaminwater comes in flavors such as acai-blueberry-pomegranate, dragonfruit and tropical citrus. A typical 20-ounce (591 ml) bottle contains 120 calories and 32 grams of sugar.

The cases are Ackerman et al v. Coca-Cola Co et al, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, No. 09-00395; and Ford v. Coca-Cola Co et al in the same court, No. 11-02355. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)