Energy drinks under scrutiny as retail enforces under-16 sales ban

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Portion size is a key issue for campaigners ©iStock/memoriesarecaptured
Portion size is a key issue for campaigners ©iStock/memoriesarecaptured

Related tags: Energy drinks, Energy drink, Caffeine

Asda and Aldi have become the latest UK supermarkets to ban the sale of energy drinks to under-16s due to concerns over negative health effects associated with consumption.

The two retail chains join Waitrose in asking customers for proof of age to buy drinks containing more than 150mg of caffeine per litre. The changes are set to come into force from March.

“We take our responsibilities as a retailer seriously and work hard to ensure we get the balance right between offering choice and doing the right thing,”​ said Andrew Murray, chief customer officer of Wal-Mart owned Asda. “We have listened to our customers and want to take a leading position in this area to support parents and teachers in limiting young peoples’ access to high caffeine drinks.”

The move was praised by NASUWT, the largest teachers’ union in the UK. The NASUWT has campaigned for more awareness concerning the impact energy drinks have after members claimed consumption rendered pupils ‘unteachable’ in the classroom.

The effects of caffeine, coupled with high sugar, have been known for some time. What is especially concerning though is the effect such large doses can have on younger children.

Other concerns include the unknown effects energy drink ingredients such as taurine can have both physically and mentally.

BDSA response

In response to Waitrose’s move, The British Soft Drinks Association (BDSA) said that it built on existing industry efforts including labelling guidelines which require any high caffeine energy drink to include an advisory note to children.

“In 2010 we introduced a voluntary Code of Practice​ to support parents and consumers who want to make informed choices,”​ said Gavin Partington, director general at the BDSA.

“In 2015 this was updated to include more stringent guidelines around marketing and promoting, including reference to in and around schools. Energy drinks are not marketed or promoted to under 16s and all beverages carry an advisory note stating: Not recommended to children.

Energy drink manufacturers have taken all possible steps to be clear about the suitability of energy drinks. Retailers, schools and parents all have a role to play in educating children about caffeine and sugar consumption from all sources.”

Consumer campaigning

Retail industry action has been joined by a spate of campaigning primarily from consumer groups, adamant that the drinks makers aren’t doing enough.

In December last year, academics from Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, urged the government to take action after finding that energy drinks were being sold to children ‘cheaper than water and pop’.

The protest received support from TV chef Jamie Oliver, who highlighted on his television programme ‘Friday Night Feast, the measures teachers had to take with those under the influence of energy drinks'.

During the programme, teachers explain how they even devise back-up lesson plans, depending on whether the kids are on a ‘high’ or ‘crashing’.

"If the energy drink industry is literally telling us their products are ‘not recommended for children’ on the cans, why can kids as young as 10 buy them whenever they want?" ​Oliver said.

“This consumption is compromising our kids, and our teachers, too – we have to do something about it. We urgently need the government to step up and put age restrictions on the sale of energy drinks to all under 16s."

Research singles out Rockstar

UK-based Action on Sugar’s (AOS) is another consumer group that has commissioned a number of studies looking into the effects these drinks can have.

Results shared by the campaign group reveal that in 2017, AG Barr’s Rockstar Punched Energy drink has the highest sugar content with 16 grams (g) per 100 millilitres (ml).

It meant a 500 ml serving would exceed the maximum daily recommendation for sugar intake for a child aged 7–10 years of 24 g per day - equivalent to six teaspoons of sugar.

Rockstar’s product range was also found to contain the highest average sugar and energy content at 14.2g and 60kcal per 100 mL respectively.

“Whilst it’s encouraging to see that some energy drinks manufacturers have reduced sugar in advance of the levy next spring, the huge can and bottle sizes (500ml) means youngsters are still consuming far too much unnecessary sugar and caffeine,” ​ said Kawther Hashem study co-author and researcher for Action on Sugar at Queen Mary University of London.

“It’s clear that further reductions in both sugar and caffeine are urgently needed, and that they should get rid of large serving sizes – action must be taken now without further delay.”

In the UK, energy drink consumption remains the highest in Europe with soft drinks identified as the main contributor of sugar intake in children (4–10 years) and teenagers (11–18 years) contributing to a staggering 30%, 40% of sugar intake.

That hasn’t stopped The Netherlands from calling for a similar drinks ban to children under 18.

According to Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad​ doctors noted the increase in young people aged 12 and over admitted to hospital having drunk six or more cans per day, leading to restlessness, fatigue and cardiac arrhythmia.

The paper also believed there to be little chance of a ban from the country’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, which favours providing information through schools and sports clubs.

“There are more products that you cannot consume or consume in moderation for your health. Prohibiting is therefore not the solution,”​ said a Ministry spokesman.  

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