In November 2018, a cross-party committee advising the Government concluded an examination of whether the sale of energy drinks to young persons (under 16) should be made illegal. The committee found that, while they heard concerns that could make a ban feasible, there was insufficient scientific evidence for them to recommend a ban.

They advised the Government to commission further research to determine how unhealthy energy drinks are compared to other soft drinks.

Why was a ban being discussed?

The consultation was launched in August 2018, and was undertaken by the Science and Technology Committee. It came after spokespersons for several health bodies voiced concerns around the issue.

Steve Brine MP, a minister for the Department of Health and Social Care, stated that UK teenagers ‘consume 50% more of these drinks’ than teenagers in Europe. Research shows that there was a 185% increase in energy drinks sales in the UK between 2006 and 2015.  

A study undertaken by academics from FUSE and published in PLOS ONE found that around one third of young people said they regularly consume energy drinks. The study cited research suggesting a link between energy drink consumption in young people and unhealthy behaviours, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, sleeping problems and palpitations.

Giving evidence to the consultation, the General Secretary of teachers union NASUWT, Chris Keates, commented that energy drinks were contributing towards poor pupil concentration in lessons and behavioural problems.

The committee was also told that the cheapness of energy drinks made them too easily accessible to young people.

What did the committee find?

The committee did not think there was currently enough evidence for them to recommend a blanket ban on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s. They said that it was unclear whether there was any notable difference in younger persons’ consumption habits between energy drinks and other soft drinks containing caffeine (such as coffee).

However, Norman Lamb MP, Chairman and spokesperson for the committee, stated that they had discovered significant concerns around the issue. In view of these, he said the Government could go ‘beyond the evidence’ currently available, and would be justified in implementing a ban. But if it did, it should explain why it had done so.

The committee recommended that the Government commission more research to be independently carried out, and investigate how bad for health energy drinks are in comparison to soft drink alternatives.

Responding to the outcome of the consultation, President of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) Professor Russell Viner expressed disappointment that a ban was not recommended. He went on to say that a minimum price for energy drinks should be considered as their pricing was certainly a factor in young people’s consumption.

What makes energy drinks unhealthy?

Energy drinks tend to contain more caffeine than other carbonated soft drinks, such as Coke, and can also be just as high in sugar.

For example, a 330ml can of Coke contains 32mg of caffeine and 35g of sugar.

A regular can of Red Bull (250ml) contains 80mg of caffeine and 27.5g of sugar. A 500ml can of Monster (regular) contains 160mg of caffeine and 55g of sugar.

To provide a coffee comparison, a McDonald’s small Americano contains 71mg of caffeine, and a medium 142mg.

Studies on the overall health benefits of caffeine consumption have produced conflicting results. But the short-term effects of too much caffeine are well-known. And as well as causing the jitters, a headache and inability to sleep, over the long-term, excessive caffeine consumption is thought to increase the risk of osteoporosis; so it’s important to stay within sensible limits.

There is no recommended set guideline or reference intake on caffeine in the UK, apart from in pregnant women, who are advised to have no more than 200mg per day. We’ve written previously on the subject of recommended daily coffee consumption that for most adults, it’s generally better to stay under 400mg a day.

However younger people, particularly those under 16, should generally be consuming less than this. Mayo Clinic advises no more than 100mg a day for adolescents. The European Food Standards Agency states that 3mg per kilogram of body weight is a safe level (so for a child weighing 40kg, 120mg would be the limit).

In his response to the consultation, Professor Viner argued that energy drinks present no benefit to children, and are only detrimental to health.

There’s also the sugar-dense aspect of some energy drinks to consider.

The daily reference intake of sugar for an adult is 90g; however, food and drink containing added sugars should make up no more than 5% percent of an adult’s daily calorie intake. This brings the added sugar reference intake for adults and children over the age of 11 down to around 30g; whereas children aged between 7 and 10 are advised to consume no more than 24g in added sugars a day.

So a 250ml serving of a regular (non-diet) energy drink would bring someone close to this. A 500ml serving would see them comfortably exceed it. (And, for the sake of balance, a 330ml can of Coke would tip them over the threshold too.)

Regularly exceeding recommended sugar intake can contribute towards diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, as well as other health issues such as gum disease and tooth decay.

Could the sale of energy drinks to under 16s be made illegal?

It likely won’t be soon, but it could still happen.

While the consultation hasn’t resulted in a ban, it’s still possible that the subject could be returned to the House of Commons if further research is carried out (as per the recommendation of the committee), and this suggests that a ban would help to protect younger people’s health.

Several large supermarket chains, including Asda, Tesco and Morrisons, have already taken action and introduced their own no-selling policies on energy drinks to under 16s; so the sale of these products to younger people is already restricted to an extent. However, a straight ban imposed by the government would take this further, and prevent smaller shops and off-licences from selling to under-16s as well.

In any case, it’s advisable to stay under the threshold when it comes to consuming sugar and caffeine. Maintaining good sleep hygiene and eating a healthy, balanced diet can help to reduce feelings of tiredness and help you focus; so you don’t need to rely on quick caffeine and sugar hits quite as much.