Leading experts say a Government crackdown on energy drinks does not go far enough, following the publication of a highly anticipated report.
The sale of energy drinks to people aged under 16 is set to be banned as part of a raft of new proposals announced in a government policy green paper called Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s in one of the final announcements under outgoing prime minister Theresa May.
However, academics from Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, who have long warned about the dangers of energy drinks, say that work still needs to be done by the drinks industry and policy-makers to make the drinks less attractive to children and young people.
The researchers from Fuse, based at Newcastle, Northumbria and Teesside Universities, were the first to publish research exploring in-depth the views of children, as young as 10-years-old, on energy drinks.
Call for action
The experts called on the Government to take action on the sale of energy drinks to under 16s after finding that they were being sold to young people ‘cheaper than water and pop’. The study highlighted the dangers of energy drinks, which typically contain high levels of caffeine and sugar.
The research also highlighted that around one in three young people say that they regularly consume energy drinks, and young people in the UK are the biggest consumers of energy drinks in Europe for their age group.
Dr Shelina Visram, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, led the study.
She said: “Our research came about following concerns from parents, teachers and health professionals about the effects that energy drinks have on behaviour in classrooms.
“While many schools have banned these drinks, our study highlighted that they are consumed in a range of different settings and at different times, including on the way to and from school.
“Children and young people reported purchasing energy drinks from local shops, often because they represented the best value for money in comparison with other drinks. Some confusion about whether or not they were suitable for children was evident amongst parents and teachers as well as young people.
“Making energy drinks an age-restricted product would help to reduce this confusion and remove the mixed messages. Each can or bottle of energy drink must state that it is not suitable for children, so why should they be able to buy them from any store that does not have a voluntary ban in place?
“The proposed ban affecting all retailers is not the only solution but it is an important part of efforts to protect the health and wellbeing of our children and young people.”
The green paper announcement comes after a public consultation undertaken last year. The consultation showed overwhelming public support, with 93% of consultation respondents agreeing that businesses should be prohibited from selling the drinks to children. Teachers and health professionals, in particular, were strong in their support for the government to take action.
Commenting on the publication of the green paper, Dr Amelia Lake, Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University, said: “The evidence tells us that caffeine is not for children – there are health and social consequences.
“We very much welcome the proposed ban of sales of high caffeine and sugar energy drinks to under 16 year olds.
“Our research found confusion and concerns among parents and teachers about the suitability of theses drinks for children. But this restriction, which moves beyond a voluntary ban, sends a clear message that these drinks are not for children.
“Since March 2018 many large supermarkets have restricted the sale of these drinks to under 16s but they could still be purchased from corner shops and bargain stores. The blanket ban makes it a level playing field for retailers.
“What is needed now is to look at how the drinks industry makes these drinks attractive to young people through their sophisticated marketing techniques. Particularly the use of computer games to promote energy drinks.
“This is progress, but we still need to do work to make these drinks less attractive to children and young people.”
Fuse’s work on energy drinks research was led by Dr Visram and supported by The Children’s Foundation Child Health Research Programme.
Anna Gipp RD, speaking on behalf of the British Dietetic Association, said: “The BDA strongly supports the decision to implement a ban on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s, and was pleased to work alongside Fuse in giving evidence to parliament on this issue.
“This policy will help ensure that children are not exposed to cheap, high-caffeine drinks which effect their sleep and concentration. These products are already required to be labelled as unsuitable for children by law, so this is a logical step to take.
“Government now needs to support the sales ban with clearer restrictions on the marketing of these products, and clear public health messages to ensure parents recognise that energy drinks are not for children.”