HARTFORD, CT — Whether Connecticut should be the first state to ban sales of energy drinks to people under 16 years of age was the subject of a legislative hearing Thursday.
No state has banned the sale of energy drinks to minors. South Carolina came closest last year after a high school student died from a caffeine overdose. But a proposed bill didn’t make it into law.
A similar law came close — but again failed to pass — last year in Great Britain.
Encouraging the Children’s Committee to make Connecticut the first state to take the bold step was Sally Mancini, director of Advocacy Resources at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
“Based on the Center’s research on this topic, we see a need for this regulation for three primary reasons: 1) energy drink consumption is dangerous for children and teens; 2) energy drink companies aggressively market their products to youth; and 3) energy drinks are extremely accessible and widely purchased by adolescents,” Mancini said in submitted testimony.
Mancini said that an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement released in 2011, and reaffirmed in 2018, found, “rigorous review and analysis of the literature reveal that caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.”
Further quoting from the policy statement, Mancini added: “Researchers have demonstrated that the high amounts of caffeine, together with other stimulants in energy drinks, lead to serious health effects, such as seizures, diabetes, and cardiac abnormalities, especially in children, adolescents, and young adults.”
Mancini said the total caffeine content in energy drink products typically ranges from 68 to 160 mg in a 16-oz energy drink and 113 to 200 mg in a 2-oz energy shot (e.g., 5-hour energy); whereas most caffeinated sodas only contain approximately 35 mg of caffeine per 12-oz container.
“Children under the age of 16 sometimes have a less informed perspective,” when it comes to purchasing drink products, Hernandez said. He added that research shows that caffeine in high forms of concentration has “adverse effects on children, especially developing children.”
Under questioning from the committee, Hernandez said results of too much caffeine in children under age of 16 could be problems with overall energy and attention deficit issues as they go into adulthood.
But two representatives of the energy drink industry steadfastly defended their products and repeatedly stated that there is much higher levels of caffeine in a cup of “coffee-house coffee” than there is in energy drinks.
“Energy drinks are safe. Energy drinks have been sold for 30 years in 170 countries,” said Joseph Lupino, director of public affairs for Red Bull.
Lupino stated an often-heard comment from the industry — the American teens get more caffeine from tea and coffee then energy drinks.
Both he and Richard Adamson, consultant for the American Beverage Association, said that the percentage of energy drinkers among teens is small compared to coffee drinkers.
And they both repeatedly stated that the caffeine levels in coffee are much higher “ounce for ounce” than in energy drinks.
“Government and food agencies worldwide recognize that mainstream energy drinks are safe for consumption,” Adamson told the committee. He added: “Energy drinks contain half the caffeine of a drink from a coffee house and the same amount or lower than the coffee that you had in your own home this morning.”
Rep. Wilson Pheanious, D-Ashford, said she worries that “a substance like Red Bull would more attractive to teenagers than coffee.”
Lupino responded: “I only wish that was case,” again rolling out statistics that he said showed teenagers are much more likely to sample coffee or tea than energy drinks.
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said one issue she had with the level of caffeine argument in coffee or tea versus energy drinks is there are other ingredients in energy drinks that are not part of a cup of coffee or tea — and that would add that to the equation some research shows the dangers of energy drinks on young people increases.
UConn’s Rudd Center Mancini made the same argument: “Energy drinks’ proprietary blends of stimulants have not been proven safe by independent researchers and cannot be tested because companies will not release the amounts of these ingredients in their products,” Mancini said.
One of the biggest proponents for the legislation, and the ones who got the biggest reception, was a group of students from City Hill Middle School in Naugatuck.
The students said they made the issue a science project, and their conclusion?
“Children and families are being severely affected and dying because of the toxic ingredients in energy drinks,” the students said in their submitted testimony. “These effects are magnified when it comes to children, whose bodies cannot handle the same harmful ingredients as adults.”
Asked by the committee about the students’ conclusion, Red Bull’s Lupino said he thought it was “great” that the kids took the project on, but as to their conclusion, he added: “It doesn’t necessarily mean its sound science.”
The legislation imposes a fine starting on Jan. 1, 2020, for any person who sells or gives an energy drink to any person under the age of 16. It’s $200 for the first offense, $350 for the third, and $500 for any subsequent offense.
Linehan said she wanted to make it clear that the bill’s intent, if it goes forward, is to stop those under the age of 16 from purchasing energy drinks, not to stop parents of children from purchasing such drinks if the parents choose to.