LOS ANGELES — More Americans are popping tops on caffeine-laden energy drinks, making them one of the fastest-growing beverages in the country. Because of health concerns, some government officials want to limit who can buy energy drinks and offer education about the possible effects of drinking them.
Los Angeles City Council member Bernard Parks last month filed a motion to restrict the self-service sale of energy beverages to minors under age 18. If he’s successful, L.A. would be the first city in the U.S. with such restrictions.
Parks also wants to “properly inform” city employees about the potential adverse effects of consuming energy drinks as a “quick fix.” In addition, he has asked the city attorney to consider joining San Francisco in its lawsuit against Monster Beverage Corporation, based in Corona, Riverside County.
Last year, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against Monster, claiming the company violated state law. On his website, Herrera noted that Monster markets highly-caffeinated energy drinks to children as young as six years old, “despite scientific findings that such products may cause ‘significant morbidity in adolescents’ from elevated blood pressure, brain seizures and severe cardiac events.”
No laws prohibit children — or anyone else — from consuming energy drinks.
Herrera’s complaint alleges that Monster’s business and marketing practices violate California’s Unfair Competition Law and the Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law.
Last month, New York state’s attorney general joined Herrera in a formal investigation to determine if the beverage-maker deliberately markets to children.
“Kids like these sugary, sweetened drinks, and they’ll drink more than you and I would as adults,” said Matt Dorsey, communications director in Herrera’s office. “It’s fair to say we’re cooperating in an investigation with New York state.”
Controversy A Decade Old
According to FDA’s adverse event reports, at least five cardiac events — including death — were linked to energy drinks between Jan. 1, 2004, and Oct. 23, 2012. FDA received adverse event reports mentioned four brands: 5 Hour Energy, Rock Star, Monster and Red Bull.
“While FDA investigates all reports to the best of its ability, it does not always have access to all the information needed to conclusively determine the cause of the event,” the agency said in a 2012 statement.
At that time, an FDA spokesperson told Bloomberg Personal Finance that the incidents, which are voluntarily reported, are considered to be allegations, and no conclusion is drawn until an investigation is completed.
In 2012, Manatee County, Fla., schools banned energy drinks. Last year, Suffolk County, N.Y., voted to ban energy drink sales to minors at beaches and parks. In Chicago, the city council rejected a proposed ordinance to regulate the drinks there. This year, Montgomery County, Md. lawmakers have proposed legislation to keep energy drinks away from minors and out of vending machines.
If Los Angeles restricts the drinks in any way, reduced sales are unlikely to significantly affect the industry, which Red Bull and Monster dominate. According to the website Caffeine Informer, each company had sales of more than $3 billion from July 2012 to July 2013.
Sales of all energy drinks in the U.S. rose 14% in 2012 to reach nearly $10 billion, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts, which predicted sales “will grow to a value of $21.5 billion by 2017, driven by continued economic recovery, expansion in retail distribution and strong potential in new product development.”
Concerns About Youth and Employees
Parks said he focused on the energy drinks issue after several members of Congress asked FDA to set caffeine restrictions on energy drinks because none existed. In April 2013, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) released a report asking 17 energy drink companies to disclose total caffeine content, to cease marketing efforts aimed at children and adolescents, and to report serious incidents associated with energy drink consumption to FDA.
Parks plans to explain his proposal next month at a meeting when the medical division of the city’s personnel department will report on the feasibility of notifying city employees about the potential hazards of consuming energy drinks.
The mayor’s office is taking a wait-and-see stance. “We’re monitoring the legislation that has been continued in committee. We’ll wait and see what the final ordinance shapes up to be, and then take a closer look,” said Yusef Robb, communications director for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Last week, Parks sat down with representatives of Monster at their request. “We met with them in good faith,” Parks said. “They gave us their speaking points and justified the benefits of their products. We took time to clarify some misunderstandings, including that we’re not proposing banning the drinks and weren’t proposing employees be tested for using them.”
He said his concern is for the city’s youth. “Access is limited for cigarettes nationally and spray paint in Los Angeles. We should be able to limit self-service access to what appears to be unregulated at this time, since there’s a wide variance of how much caffeine goes into each drink.”
Some Worry Governments Will Go ‘Too Far’
Opponents of regulating caffeine drinks responded to Park’s proposal with concerns that government officials may be overreacting.
Bill Dombrowski, president and CEO of the California Retailers Association, questioned Parks’ proposal to limit self-service access to energy drinks.
“That’s a pretty severe step to take for what is still a legal product,” Dombrowski said.
Caffeine Informer editor Ted Kallmyer thinks putting energy drinks behind the counter “goes a bit too far.”
“It might be more realistic to handle this the same way as alcohol, by checking IDs,” he said. “After all, energy drinks have far less of an impact on society than alcohol. And we should keep in perspective that banning things makes kids want them more. Education is a much better tool — helping kids understand caffeine, and that’s not really being done anywhere.”
Health Risks a Hot Topic
The possible dangers of drinking too many energy drinks at one time, according to Caffeine Informer, include cardiac arrest, headaches and migraines, insomnia, type 2 diabetes, drug interactions, addiction, risky behavior, jitters and nervousness, vomiting and allergic reactions.
The federal government’s Dawn Report of January 2013 showed the number of emergency department visits involving energy drinks more than doubled from 10,068 visits in 2007 to 20,783 visits in 2011. The American Association of Poison Control Centers also tracks incidents involving energy drinks, and reported that in 2013, poison centers received reports of 3,028 “exposures” to the drinks and of those, 1,833 involved children 18 and younger.
Federal government guidelines cite 400 milligrams a day — about the amount of caffeine in four or five cups of coffee — as an amount “generally” safe for healthy adults. The government has not recommended safe caffeine levels for children. Energy drink opponents warn that consumers don’t always know all their health problems, like high blood pressure, and that any caffeine could be risky in that scenario.
Last month, FDA issued guidance “to clarify legal requirements in the face of growth in the marketplace of beverages and liquid dietary supplements that contain novel substances such as botanical extracts or other botanical ingredients.” More than 60 plants contain caffeine.
Some experts say that if people of any age want caffeine — and millions do — they’ll find a way to get their lift from the world’s most popular drug. A study released this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that in recent years, average caffeine intake in children and teens hasn’t increased but that kids are getting more caffeine now from coffee and energy drinks than from soda. The academy in a May 2011 report said that “caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diets of children and adolescents.”
According to a poll conducted by the libertarian Reason Foundation, more than 75% of Americans are against government regulation of caffeinated energy drinks, while slightly more than 20% would find it acceptable. The national survey of about 1,000 adults conducted by phone in December last year asked consumers how they felt about government regulation of a variety of issues including trans fats, e-cigarettes and genetic testing kits.
Energy Drinks Are Not Like Prescriptions
Parks said his motion isn’t intended to regulate what or how much 40,000 city employees consume, or to initiate “a food police state.”
“It’s about using a substance you may not have control over, especially if you use high-impact machinery or heavy equipment, drive vehicles or work around electricity,” Parks said.
He worries that some employees might substitute energy drinks for sustenance or sleep, and that the drinks may affect judgment and reaction time differently — including when they wear off.
Energy drinks are not like prescriptions, Parks said. “Those tell you how much to take and when, and what the side effects are. Getting something off the shelf, you have no real idea about what’s in the can, and you certainly don’t know what the liability is.”