Energy drinks makers risk a regulatory clamp down if they fail to take action on marketing campaigns that irresponsibly target young consumers.
Concerns about excessive consumption of ingredients like caffeine and taurine has already prompted a German motion to impose mandatory warnings on energy drinks at an EU level.
The Commission rejected the move but momentum is building for tighter regulation across the globe. Manufacturers need to take note of some of the legitimate arguments advanced by energy drink critics to dodge punitive restrictions.
Last week the editors of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) published an editorial raising the alarm about energy drink consumption among children. They point to evidence of adolescents drinking excessive amounts in the evening and mixing the drinks with alcohol.
Marketing targeted at youth groups
This is no basis for a ban or even government imposed regulation but it is good reason for manufacturers to take a careful look at their marketing practices. As the authors of the CMAJ article point out, energy drink marketing frequently targets children and adolescents.
Brands must think twice before sponsoring events like skateboarding competitions when they know that adolescents make up the bulk of the audience. This is a group that cannot be expected to make sensible health decisions and there is strong evidence that they are not doing so with energy drinks.
For example, a survey of energy drink consumption among young people aged 12 to 18 in the US found that 73 per cent were consuming more than 100mg of caffeine a day, with most consumption occurring in the evening.
Energy drink makers need to wake up to statistics like this that raise serious concerns about the sleep quality and school performance of adolescents.
Role of industry guidelines
In Europe, the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) is taking a lead on this, having just published a code of practice on energy drink marketing.
It states that energy drinks containing more than 150 mg/l of caffeine may not be promoted or marketed to children under the age of 16 and should carry the additional labelling statement: “Not suitable for children, pregnant women and persons sensitive to caffeine”.
The Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA), which is currently working on its own guidelines, should follow the British example.
It is of course not enough just to publish guidelines. Both the BSDA and UNESDA need to ensure that they are respected and not treated as loose statements of intent.
Adults should be expected to make up their own mind about energy drinks so long as caffeine content is clearly stated on the label. If they do not decide to make sensible health choices, that is their own responsibility.
But the industry has a duty of care towards children and adolescents and should review current marketing practices. Failure to take sensible self regulatory steps now, could lead to draconian restrictions in the future.