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New Book Exposes the Dirty Truth Behind Coca-Cola: Accusations of Murder and Environmental Destruction

Coke has been accused of violence against union members in South America, water pollution overseas, and contributing to child health problems. Is it true?

Coca-Cola spends $2.8 billion a year in advertising to make sure its soda is seen as the most iconic American drink -- a beverage enjoyed around the world, virtual peace-building in a bottle. The company has spent 124 years polishing its image, but it took author Michael Blanding only 300 pages to tarnish that gleam. In his new book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink, Blanding details the sordid history of the company, from patent medicine experiment to multinational behemoth.

The book opens with a page- and stomach-turning description of the murder of Isidro Gil, a union worker posted at the front gate of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia. As Blanding describes later in the book, Coca-Cola has been accused of being complicit in the deaths of union members in South America who were killed by paramilitaries. Some people may find this shocking. "Finding the Coca-Cola Company accused of murder is like finding out Santa Claus is accused of being a pedophile," Blanding writes in the introduction. But throughout the book he details the accusations against Coca-Cola on the human rights front, explaining why Coke is reviled elsewhere in the world. In India and Mexico the company is facing blowback for allegations that its bottling plants have drained local aquifers and polluted water sources; in Turkey there are more charges of anti-union activity; and in the U.S. and Europe people are fed up with Coke's advertising to children, especially in schools, and are concerned about the link between soft drinks and obesity.

Blanding recently spoke to AlterNet by phone to tell us what he uncovered in years of investigating claims against the mighty soft-drink giant.

Tara Lohan: Tell me how you first got started on this project.

Michael Blanding: I've been looking at Coke for a long time. I first heard about some of the allegations against Coke back in 2004 from activists at the Democratic National Convention. Like everyone else I used to have warm, fuzzy feelings about Coke -- all that peace and love and harmony and teaching-the-world-to-sing stuff. Then I heard about violence against union members in South America, water depletion and pollution overseas, and their contribution to child health problems and I realized things don't necessarily "go better with Coke." I wrote an article for the Nation in 2006 that was very well received and convinced me there was enough material for a longer treatment in a book.

TL: When I tell people I'm reading your book, the first question they always ask is 'Is there really cocaine in it?' As you mention in the beginning of the book, the company did have some shady beginnings.

MB: Yeah, all evidence including court testimony from the founder of the Coca-Cola Company itself points to the fact that there was cocaine in it. Coke had its beginning in an era when doctors would kill you or cure you and people turned to all these home dosing remedies and cocaine was seen back then as being this wonder drug that cured everything. Even so, there probably wasn't much cocaine in it -- only 1/20th to 1/30th of a modern dose. But to this day the Coca-Cola company still swears there was never any cocaine in it. Anything that runs against their squeaky clean image they are not going to admit.

TL: It seems the company has always been a bit two-faced. One of the things I found so interesting was how the company was pushing its product overseas during the second World War. You write that it was given as a reward to Charles B. Hall, the first African-American fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy plane and that Coke even petitioned the government (successfully) to be exempted from sugar rationing on the grounds that soda boosted troop morale. But yet at the same time it was seen as the antidote to fascism it was also being served in Nazi Germany.

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