Energy Drinks Under Scrutiny

WITH THE STEADILY growing popularity of energy drinks has come increased media attention as well as ongoing political scrutiny. Interestingly, those raising concerns about the product category appear to be as diverse as those who consume them and include policy-makers, parents, athletic coaches and members of the medical community.

Increasingly, media outlets have included coverage suggesting that energy drink consumption leads to adverse health effects. Whether on-air or in print, some have suggested that these beverages cause everything from dehydration to nervousness. Others have gone so far as to call them “addictive” or quote the latest study alleging that teenagers that consume energy drinks engage in risky behaviors. The common thread that often binds these attacks together seems to be caffeine.

Caffeine is likely to be contained in a number of items you may consume, everything from coffee and chocolate to yogurt and over-the-counter medicines. Energy drinks, however, continue to be uniquely demonized for the caffeine they contain. Yet, when compared on a per ounce basis, most energy drinks contain less than or equal to the amount of caffeine in coffeehouse drinks, beverages that also are available to and enjoyed by myriad consumers.

No matter, energy drinks are catching heat. Across the country, state legislatures, school boards and athletic governing bodies have taken a closer look at implementing policies that would ban or curtail the consumption of energy drinks. Just two years ago no state law or major school district had specifically addressed the subject of energy drinks, nor their consumption by children or sale/consumption in the school environment. This year, however, has shown a definite shift in policy-makers’ attention.

At least three states have introduced energy drinks legislation in the 2008 legislative sessions. In Kentucky and Maine, lawmakers sought to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors. Meanwhile, legislative proposals in Kentucky and Rhode Island attempted to prohibit the sale of energy drinks on school grounds. None of these legislative proposals were approved. And only the Maine legislation garnered a hearing, where the bill was overwhelmingly defeated. In this instance, members of the beverage industry and Maine retailers testified about the enormous cost and logistical nightmare of implementing a program to ensure minors would be unable to purchase energy drinks. In their testimony, they also provided an interesting comparison of the levels of caffeine in energy drinks compared to some other products, as well as the presence of caffeine in a variety of consumer products, such as coffee, ice cream, over-the-counter medicines and more.

Bans in school districts and among athletic organizations also are growing in number. School boards and athletic organizations have acted to reduce the use of energy drinks on school campuses and among athletes. In fact, one of the largest bodies to regulate energy drinks is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Under a provision which regulates nutritional supplements, energy drinks are considered “performance enhancing” and cannot be provided by any institution. In addition, many high schools and their athletic departments either use the NCAA regulations as a guideline or have issued their own policies on energy drinks. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia have banned energy drinks “before, during and after school on school grounds and during all school and sporting events.” Furthermore, the Diocese of Arlington, which covers Catholic schools in Fairfax County and much of Northern Virginia, has banned energy drinks from their school campuses, as well as for their athletes.

ABA member companies have policies against the sale of beverages marketed as energy drinks in schools, which provides some protection against some of these attacks. In addition, the beverage industry has educated policy-makers about the safety of caffeine and how all beverages, including energy drinks, can fit into a balanced and healthy lifestyle when consumed sensibly.

Although legislative efforts to limit the availability of energy drinks to students or minors first appeared during the 2008 legislative sessions, continued media coverage of the beverage category will be sure to catch the attention of policy-makers as we move into the latter half of the year. ABA and the beverage industry will continue to educate policy-makers, health professionals and the media about our industry’s wide array of beverages, all of which can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

Tracey Halliday is the Communications Director at the American Beverage Association.