Renewed call on Government to restrict energy drinks sales to children, as evidence reveals wider risks

Renewed call on Government to restrict energy drinks sales to children, as evidence reveals wider risks

Over 40 health organisations and experts are urgently calling on policy makers to implement long-promised plan to restrict energy drinks sales to children, as a new evidence review of the effects of energy drinks on children has found increased risk of mental health issues associated with their consumption.

The new study, published in the Public Health journal adds to the body of evidence that consumption of the drinks which are typically high in caffeine and sugar are harmful to the health of children and young people. In the comprehensive study researchers from Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, at Teesside University and Newcastle University, looked at data from 57 studies of over 1.2 million children and young people from more than 21 countries.

Additional health effects noted in the research review include increased risk of suicidal thoughts, psychological distress, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, depressive and panic behaviours, allergic diseases, insulin resistance, and tooth decay. The study also links consumption of the drinks with an increased risk of poor academic performance, sleep problems and unhealthy dietary habits. Energy drinks consumption has also been associated with increased risky behaviours such as substance abuse, violence and unsafe sex.

In response to the new report, Food Active, the Children’s Food Campaign and 39 other health organisations, researchers and experts have now written to both government health ministers and the Labour shadow health team, asking them how much more evidence is needed before the Government keeps its promise to restrict sales of high caffeine energy drinks to under-16s. Signatories to the letters also include the lead author of the report Dr Amelia Lake from Teesside University, plus the Obesity Health Alliance, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, British Dental Association, British Dietetic Association, Diabetes UK, Association of Directors of Public Health, the Food Foundation, British Medical Asssociation, Obesity Empowerment Network, World Cancer Research Fund, Action on Sugar and 11 local directors of public health.

The UK government ran a consultation on ending the sale of energy drinks to children in England and announced an intention to bring in legislation in their 2019 green paper ‘Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s’. While 93% of respondents to the consultation supported restricting sales to under 16s, there has been no further action. The authors of the letter point out that since that time, energy drinks sales have continued to boom.

New market data published in December 2023 showing that energy drinks sales are continuing to boom, reaching more than £2.2 billion in 2023, up 21.6% on the previous year, with new drinks such as Prime arriving on the market, backed by high profile social media influencers. In the letter to policy makers, health organisations say “We are calling on the government to uphold its promise and finally implement the national sales restriction on these harmful drinks to under 16s. Four years of inaction on this issue is simply too long.”

Barbara Crowther, Children’s Food Campaign Manager from Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, said:

“It’s not right that companies are profiting from energy drinks when evidence shows they’re harming children and young people’s health. These concerning findings should prompt our government to act. But they’ve been disappointingly silent on the issue for the past five years. Over that time, energy drinks companies have increasingly targeted young people with even higher caffeine content drinks, putting more of them at risk. We need our government to step up and follow through with their planned restriction of sales of these drinks to under 16s.”

Beth Bradshaw, Project Manager at Food Active said:

“This latest academic paper really does beg the question how much more evidence is needed for the government to act on energy drinks. Since they promised action back in 2019, we have seen the energy drinks market expand further and the likes of Prime Energy have been hugely popular, and marketed to young people, despite the packaging saying itself claiming it is not suitable for children.

“That’s why Food Active, the Children’s Food Campaign and 39 other academics, local public health directors and campaign groups are calling on the government and the Labour party to commit to introducing a sales restriction on energy drinks to under 16s as part of their manifestos. The health of our children cannot wait. The time to act is now!”

Lead author Amelia Lake, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University and Associate Director of Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, said:

“Energy drinks are marketed to children and young people as a way to improve energy and performance, but our findings suggest that they are actually doing more harm than good. We have raised concerns about the health impacts of these drinks for the best part of a decade after finding that they were being sold to children as young as 10-years-old for as little as 25p. That is cheaper than water and pop! The evidence is clear that energy drinks are harmful to the mental and physical health of children and young people as well as their behaviour and education. We need to take action now to protect them from these risks.”

Co-author Dr Shelina Visram, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University, said:

“We are deeply concerned about the findings that energy drinks can lead to psychological distress and issues with mental health. These are important public health concerns that need to be addressed. There has been policy inaction on this area despite government concern and public consultations. It is time that we have action on the fastest growing sector of the soft drink market.”

William Roberts, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said:

“This important review adds to the growing evidence that energy drinks can be harmful to children and young people’s physical and mental health, both in the short and long-term. That’s why we need the UK Government to step up and deliver on its 2019 commitment to ban sales of energy drinks to under 16s. In doing so it would not only be following the evidence, but also following the example of countries that have already restricted sales to children, a move supported by the majority of the public.”

Notes to editors:

Commercially available energy drinks contain between 160-200mg of caffeine per can. This is at least double the amount found in an average cup of coffee, at around 80mg. The drinks also contain over four times the amount of caffeine as an average can of cola. Many energy drinks are also high in sugar, containing between 9-13g per 100ml.

The top 5 energy and sports drinks brands in the UK are Red Bull, Monster, Lucozade Energy, Prime and Relentless. The category is worth an extra £390.2m in 2023 after 81.4 million more litres went through tills, according to new market data published by The Grocer in December 2023. Total category sales reached £2,217 million in the 53 weeks to September 2023, up 21.6% on the previous year.

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