Thursday, 21 July 2016

What should we do about children and young people’s consumption of energy drinks?

Guest post by Shelina Visram, Fuse Associate and Lecturer in the Centre for Public Policy & Health, Durham University

Did you know that cigarettes are the only product on the market that, when used exactly as intended by their manufacturers, will kill around half of their users? And yet you can buy them legally in every country of the world, with the exception of Bhutan? But you probably knew that already (except maybe the bit about Bhutan). It’s just one example of the type of paradoxical situation that occurs when public health evidence suggests we should do something and this is then contradicted by the actions of government and industry.

Here’s another example: did you know that energy drink consumption by school-age children is linked to hyperactivity, risky behaviours and health complaints such as headaches and stomach aches? And yet children of any age can buy these drinks in a variety of shops? You may have heard that the supermarket chain Morrisons banned sales of energy drinks to under 16s, but this was a trial that ended in early 2015. Some retailers choose not to sell energy drinks to younger children – often in response to pleas from teachers at nearby schools – but they do this on a voluntary basis and have to accept that they will probably lose revenue as a result.

Regular readers of this blog may be aware that Fuse members have been involved in conducting research on youth energy drink consumption over the past couple of years (you can read previous blog entries here and here). You may have read our Fuse brief, seen us present our findings at a seminar or conference, or downloaded our report from the HYPER! study website. So why the renewed call for action? At a time when the Government’s delayed childhood obesity strategy has been described as "pathetic", we need to take every opportunity to push for clear messages around food and health. We have worked with the Food Research Collaboration (FRC) to produce a briefing paper – published today – that clearly sets out the main ingredients of energy drinks, the current market situation, the scientific evidence base, and existing interventions, ranging from school-based educational activities to country-wide bans. The paper concludes with a series of recommendations on what could (and should) be done by policy-makers and others to address this issue.

To go back to the example of cigarettes, we know that sales and marketing restrictions are key factors in preventing uptake of smoking by children and young people, even if they do not eradicate the problem completely. Obviously energy drinks are nowhere near as harmful as cigarettes. They do not kill one in two consumers. But, like all sugar-sweetened beverages, they do contribute to increasing levels of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as poor dental health. By law, energy drink labels must include the following warning: “High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women”. So isn’t it time we stopped sending out conflicting messages and made it clear that these drinks are not suitable for children and young people?

Download the briefing paper Energy Drinks: What’s the evidence? written by Shelina Visram (Durham University) and Kawther Hashem (Action on Sugar).

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox via

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