Thursday, 29 October 2015

Not just a can of pop: the social meanings of energy drinks

Posted by Mandy Cheetham, Fuse Research Associate at Teesside University

Children and young people can sometimes be conspicuous by their absence in public debates about sugary drinks, so I’ve enjoyed reading the series of blogs posted since September, which describe research and activities involving young people. As children and young people are the predominant consumers of sugary drinks, it is claimed they are one of the groups whose health will benefit most from efforts to control or reduce their consumption (FPH 2015), such as the introduction of a duty on sugary drinks advocated by PHE (2015) and popularised by Jamie Oliver.

Our study on energy drinks showed that cost was one of the major influences on young people’s choices. The mapping exercise we did with Year 6 and Year 9 students in their local area showed walls of cheap, appealing, attractive displays of multiple flavoured energy drinks to tempt young people, with ‘buy one, get one free’ offers to share with friends. As important as the economic considerations are, the social meanings of energy drinks also have a major role to play. These are often misunderstood or ignored by adults planning public health interventions to reduce the risks of obesity.
Young people described the social spaces in which they drink energy drinks, whether consumed at weekend sleepovers, whilst gaming, hanging out with mates in the park, or on the way to or from school. Shared, swapped, and exchanged, energy drinks, and the sponsorship, branding and marketing associated with them, are woven in to the social fabric of young people’s lives. Energy drinks are part of the construction and maintenance of particular gendered identities, associated with extreme sports, alien elimination, looking hard, sophisticated and / or attractive. They offer young people opportunities to conform to certain ideas about what girls and boys like and do, and become part of the currency of young people’s daily interactions. In short, social meanings matter.

In Wendy Wills’ presentation at the Sweetness, Social Norms and Schools seminar in September, (CPPH/Wolfson Seminar - Sweetness, social norms and schools: factors influencing children and young people’s food and drink practices), I was struck by the similarities in young people’s comments about the importance of social relationships, interactions with friends, and the value of friendly respectful exchanges with local retailers, informing their lunchtime decision making. Young people were keen to be involved in efforts to improve the school food environment. Young people in our study were similarly fired up to make positive changes, and questioned why and how energy drinks companies can target young people under 16. They had ideas about what would make a difference and were realistic about the challenges of restricting sales of energy drinks to young people.

In September, Fuse welcomed Professor Helen Roberts, a self confessed fan of evidence informed public health advocacy, to deliver a knowledge exchange seminar prompting debates about our role as academics and advocates. Constrained by restrictions placed on us by funders, some appear nervous about compromising assumed notions of independence. If we want our research to have impact, should we not frame public health debates in ways which make sense to those who participate in our research? Rather than simply highlighting the health risks of energy drinks, this means understanding the social meanings of young people’s food and drink choices and more critical engagement with the industry that promotes them. Our efforts would be further strengthened by encouraging young people and colleagues to connect with other campaigns such as RRED and GULP.

To download the Fuse Energy Drinks report click here, or the Fuse Brief can be viewed here.

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