Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The illogical war on energy drinks

When the government announced plans to ban the sale of energy drinks in August 2018, I wrote an article for the Spectator questioning the logic behind a ban.

It seemed to me that if sugar was the problem, the government would be restricting the many drinks that have more sugary in them than Red Bull - and would leave zero-sugar energy drinks alone.

But if caffeine was the problem, why was the government not proposing a ban on the many other caffeinated products that teenagers can get their hands on?

Last year, I decided to look at the issue more thoroughly for an IEA briefing paper (which was published on New Year's Eve). Studying the data in detail strengthened my belief that the proposed legislation is illogical, unscientific and pointless.

You could argue that kids do not consume many hot drinks so their caffeine content does not matter, but you would be wrong. British children aged between ten to seventeen only get 11 per cent of their caffeine from energy drinks. They get the rest from tea (39 per cent), cola (33 per cent), coffee (10 per cent) and chocolate (7 per cent). Even the heaviest adolescent consumers of energy drinks only get 17 per cent of their daily caffeine intake from them.

There is no campaign to ban the sale of tea, coffee and cola to anyone under the age of 18, so what is so special about energy drinks? They are not particularly high in sugar and caffeine and the government has not identified any other ingredients in them that could pose a risk to health.

Age restrictions are generally placed on the sale of products that can cause demonstrable harm to the user (e.g. alcohol, tobacco, solvents) or to others (e.g. knives, fireworks). Energy drinks have been on the market for a quarter of a century, have been studied extensively and have only recently became the subject of a moral panic after the failed businessman Jamie Oliver began claiming, without evidence, that ‘these drinks are turning our kids into addicts’.

In 2018, largely in response to Mr Oliver’s campaign, many supermarkets voluntarily banned the sale of energy drink to people under 16. In doing so, they lost sales to independent retailers and now hope to use the law to constrain the competition. The government says that there have been ‘strong calls’ for legislation from ‘some industry bodies and retailers’ and argues that a ban ‘would create a level playing field for businesses’. This suggests that the big supermarkets are trying to nobble their smaller competitors. If so, the government shouldn’t help them.

Banning the sale of energy drinks to minors on the basis of their sugar and/or caffeine content would set a troubling precedent. It would be no surprise if, having secured legislation, campaigners complain about the ‘loophole’ that allows adolescents to buy drinks that contain more sugar or caffeine than those which had just been banned.

A ban would affect adults as well as children. If it goes ahead, anyone who does not look well over the age of 18 will have to provide ID when buying an energy drink. If the government also proceeds with its proposal to ban the sale of energy drinks in vending machines and from certain buildings, it will reduce consumer choice for adults and children alike.

Most people would regard a ban on the sale of tea, coffee and sugary products to teenagers as disproportionate and ridiculous. There is no scientific reason to view a ban on the sale of energy drinks to teenagers any differently.

You can read my research into this in Vox Pop: Why banning energy drinks doesn't make sense

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