An end to the sale of energy drinks to children moved a step closer last month. What’s happened and is this good news?
DON’T READ THE LABEL. Under current EU labelling rules, any drink, other than tea or coffee, that contains over 150mg of caffeine per litre requires a warning label saying: “High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women.” Despite these warning labels, however, children are still consuming these drinks – and in pretty large volumes.
HOW MUCH? The government cited recent evidence showing that more than two thirds of UK children aged 10-17, and nearly a quarter of those aged 6-9, are energy drink consumers. What’s more, adolescents (aged 10-17) who drink energy drinks are drinking, on average, 50% more than the EU average for that age group. In 2013 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that the group most likely to drink energy drinks are adolescents (68%).
SORE HEADS. The government’s consultation cites research showing that adolescents (aged 12-18) who consume energy drinks several times a day are 4.5 times more likely to report experiencing headaches, 3.5 times more likely to report sleeping problems, and 3.4 times more likely to report experiencing tiredness than those who don’t guzzle Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar and the like. Another study found that 34% of adolescents were struggling to concentrate at school because they didn’t get enough sleep.
AND SUGAR OVERLOAD. The other concern is that these drinks are loaded with sugar. In December, Action on Sugar found 78% of the products they tested at nine UK retailers and one convenience store, exceeded the maximum daily recommendation for sugar intake for a child aged 7–10 years (24g, equivalent to six teaspoons of sugar). In 2015 the figure was 86%. The research, published in BMJ Open, also showed that in the same period there has been a 10% reduction in sugar – from 10.6g to 9.5g per 100ml – and a 6% drop in calorie content. This showed some manufacturers were reformulating in anticipation of the April 2018 Soft Drinks Industry Levy. However, the team also found that typical serving sizes of energy drinks are larger than other sugar-sweetened drinks, at an “excessive” 500 ml. The average sugar content in energy drinks in both 2015 and 2017 (per serving) was “more than an adult’s entire maximum daily recommendation for sugar intake in the UK”.
STILL CHEAP. Though supermarket prices for energy drinks spiked when the levy came in, prices began falling again in May, according to research by The Grocer published this month. In fact, the prices have fallen back to the same levels as last year. However, the report highlighted that manufacturers had “worked hard” on reformulation with AG Barr cutting sugar levels in its Rockstar Punched Energy cans from 15.2g/100ml to 4.2g/100ml. However, caffeine levels remain worryingly high.
BETTER BAN THEM. Nevertheless, a ban now seems inevitable. A government consultation, launched on August 30th, proposes a ban that would apply to beverages that contain more than 150mg of caffeine per litre and prevent all retailers from selling the drinks to children. Lithuania and Latvia have already introduced similar restrictions. Questions in the consultation include: whether the restrictions should apply to children under 16 or under 18; and whether the law should be changed to prevent children from buying them in any situation.
HOW OLD? The age at which the ban should apply is likely to be one of the major sticking points. A number of supermarkets have already stopped selling drinks to under-16s; and the Association of Convenience Stores polled 1,210 independent retailers on their energy drink sales policies in January 2018 – 53% reported that they do not sell energy drinks to under 16s. However the Department of Health’s consultation notes “16- and 17-year-olds are the highest consumers of energy drinks”, which could mean the ban is extended to under-18s.
The deadline for responding to the consultation is November 21st 2018. The rules would only apply to England but the government said it wants to work with devolved administrations to ensure the approach is aligned as closely as possible.