Energy drinks are typically non-alcoholic drinks which contain caffeine and other ingredients to create a stimulating physiological effect. We were prompted to look at the effects of energy drinks, especially the caffeine contained in them, following research which showed that young people in the UK are the biggest consumers of energy drinks in Europe for their age. We wanted to understand whether the caffeine in energy drinks had a negative health effect on young people, and explore whether the decision taken by some retailers to ban their sale to under 16s should be extended to all retailers through legislation. In this Report, we also examine labelling requirements and advertising restrictions.
During our inquiry, the Government published chapter 2 of its “plan for action” on childhood obesity. In that plan the Government undertook to consult on an intention to “introduce legislation to end the sale of energy drinks to children by all retailers”. On 30 August 2018, after we had concluded taking oral evidence, the Government launched this consultation. This Report is our contribution to that Government consultation.
In this Report we consider the effects of energy drink consumption on children. We conclude that drinking energy drinks is correlated with young people engaging in other risky behaviours such as drinking alcohol and smoking, but it is not possible to determine whether there is any causal link. In our view, there is insufficient evidence as to whether children’s consumption habits are significantly different for energy drinks compared with other caffeinated products such as tea and coffee. We recommend that in the next six months the Government should commission independent research to establish whether energy drinks have more harmful effects than other soft drinks containing caffeine in order to support evidence-based decision-making.
We acknowledge that energy drinks are consumed disproportionately by disadvantaged groups and there is evidence that consumption of energy drinks is associated with negative impacts on “executive functions” and may risk hyperactivity or lack of concentration. Any trend that undermines the educational attainment of disadvantaged groups needs to be tackled. Meanwhile, the pricing of some energy drinks means that it is easy for children to consume them in excess, beyond the suggested safe limits—and there is evidence that children are doing this. The current voluntary ban implemented by a number of retailers amplifies the message that energy drinks are associated with negative health, behavioural and dietary effects. We would support schools, local authorities and local communities working with businesses and vending machine providers on possible actions (e.g. exclusion zones) that could be used to reduce energy drink consumption among children, and in particular to reduce the extent to which they are consumed in excess.
On balance, we conclude that the current scientific evidence alone is not sufficient to justify a measure as prohibitive as a statutory ban on the sale of energy drinks to children. Single portions are within the European Food Safety Authority’s suggested limit for caffeine intake by children. This limit may be exceeded if other products containing caffeine are also consumed, or if energy drinks are consumed in excess, but the same can be said for many products available for sale to young people, including other drinks containing caffeine. However, we recognise that it might be legitimate for the Government to go beyond the quantitative evidence available and implement a statutory ban on the basis of societal concerns and qualitative evidence, such as the experience of school teachers. If the Government decides to introduce a statutory ban it should set out the reasoning for its decision.
We believe that labelling of food and drinks should be designed to help the consumer make an informed choice. In the case of energy drinks, there are concerns that children and their parents do not fully understand what they are consuming. Despite statutory labelling on energy drinks that they are not recommended for children, a significant number of young people continue to consume these products, and some in excessive amounts. While there is a risk of glamorising the product in the minds of younger consumers from warning labels, increasing the prominence of the message could help parents to make informed choices about what they buy for their children. We believe that the evidence threshold for including more prominent advisory notices is lower than for prohibiting their sale. The Government should use the opportunity of leaving the EU to introduce, within 18 months of exit day, additional labelling requirements to ensure that advisory messages are more prominent on energy drinks packaging.
It is important that the sugar and caffeine content of energy drinks is clearly communicated to consumers. The Government should consult on whether introducing caffeine labelling requirements on all products containing caffeine (in milligrams per 100 millilitres) including average values per serving of tea and coffee in coffee shops, would help consumers make informed choices in relation to energy drinks as well.
Although there are codes of practice in place that limit the advertising of energy drinks to children (on the basis that they are usually high-sugar products), we are concerned that children may nevertheless be exposed to advertisements aimed at older target audiences. We recommend that the Committee of Advertising Practice consider whether to explicitly include high-caffeine products within the scope of its advertising approach to high-fat, sugar or salt content (HFSS) foods and drinks.
We are particularly worried by ‘advergaming’ and ‘gamification’ as a route through which young people will be encouraged to buy energy drinks, including purchases influencing progress in a game itself. Weak controls on age verification in gaming make this possible, and other games clearly produced by and associated with energy drinks companies are freely available for children to play. We recommend that the Advertising Standards Agency should hold an urgent review of age verification processes used in games to ensure that children are not exposed to advertisements and game features aimed at adults.
Published: 4 December 2018