Energy drinks and children Contents


1.Energy drinks are typically non-alcoholic drinks which contain caffeine and other ingredients to create a stimulating physiological effect. In this inquiry, we have focused on high-caffeine beverages containing more than 150mg of caffeine per litre, which reflects the threshold used by the British Soft Drinks Association in its 2015 code of practice on energy drinks.1 It also matches the level used in EU labelling regulations for high-caffeine products, which require these products to be labelled as “not recommended for children”.2 This regulation applies to several leading brands of energy drink in the UK such as Red Bull, Monster, Relentless and Rockstar, but other brands with lower levels of caffeine such as Lucozade Energy are also often referred to as energy drinks.3

Our inquiry

2.In March 2018 we launched an inquiry into energy drinks to consider the evidence relating to the effects of these drinks on children and to explore whether actions from the Government, industry and others were needed. We were prompted to look at these issues as young people in the UK are the biggest consumers of energy drinks in Europe for their age, and there has been considerable media attention on this issue.4 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. We also sought to examine labelling requirements and advertising restrictions

3.We received over 40 written submissions for our inquiry, including from retailers, health professionals, academics, the Government, public bodies and others. We also held two oral evidence sessions, taking evidence from researchers, the soft drinks industry, advertising regulators, and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health and Primary Care (Steve Brine MP).

4.Several major retailers have recently chosen not to sell high-caffeine energy drinks to children under 16, including Sainsbury’s, Asda, the Co-Op, and Waitrose.5 We wrote to these retailers to ask them for information on their decision to introduce a ban and their experience of enforcing it. All bar one retailer (Lidl) responded to our request—responses received have been published as written evidence and are referred to in this Report.6

5.The Parliamentary Education Centre also polled a number of visiting school children on our behalf to enable us to hear about their experiences of energy drinks (see Annex). The oral and written evidence that we received can be found on our website.7 In May 2018 we also visited Reading to talk to youth leaders, parents and teachers about their views on energy drinks, which was useful background ahead of taking oral evidence. We are grateful to all of those who contributed to our inquiry.

Levels of consumption

6.Concern about the possible health effects for young people consuming energy drinks is driven in part by the relatively high levels of consumption of these products in the UK. In 2013 a major study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that UK adolescents (aged between 10 and 18) drank over 3 litres per month on average, compared with 2 litres per month on average across all the European countries participating.8 However, we heard criticism from the Association of Convenience Stores that the 2013 EFSA study was out-dated and not directly applicable, since “the EFSA study is now 5 years old, not UK-specific and focuses on consumption of energy drinks for adolescents that are under 18s rather than under 16s”.9

7.The Government’s consultation on restricting the sale of energy drinks stated that “more than two thirds of UK children aged 10–17, and nearly a quarter of those aged 6–9, are energy drink consumers”.10 The consultation document also noted that “a quarter of children who consume energy drinks will have three or more in one sitting”.

8.We also heard that consumption of energy drinks by children was associated with measures of educational disadvantage. In 2015 the Government commissioned Professor Fiona Brooks, Dr Elene Klemera, and Josefine Magnusson at the University of Hertfordshire to analyse survey results relating to the consumption of energy drinks from the WHO’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey.11 In their analysis they found that children in receipt of free school meals (FSM) disproportionately consumed energy drinks: among students who report that they drink at least one energy drink per day, 23% were in receipt of FSM, compared with 13% receiving FSM in the sample as a whole.12

9.In contrast, Energy Drinks Europe, downplayed the prevalence of energy drink consumption in the UK in the context of young people’s consumption of caffeine from other sources. They told us that “in the UK adolescent population (10–18-year-old), about 90 percent of all caffeine comes from sources other than energy drinks (39% from tea, 33% from colas, 10% from coffee and 8% from chocolate)”.13

Defining ‘children’

10.The focus for our inquiry was energy drinks and children, but there are differences in how ‘children’ are defined in different contexts. The Government has consulted on whether to introduce a statutory ban on the sale of energy drinks to young people under the age of 16, 18 or another age. The consultation noted that “the age of 18 is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult, gaining full citizenship rights and responsibilities, and is also the age limit for purchasing other age-restricted substances, such as tobacco and alcohol”.14 However, 18 was not the age used by all our witnesses or in current codes to define a child. Advertising regulations in the UK define a child “as anyone under the age of 16” (see Chapter 5),15 and the voluntary action taken by retailers to restrict the sale of energy drinks has been applied to under 16s (see Chapter 3). Meanwhile, Monster Energy told us that they defined children as “those aged 12 and under”, with their primary target market being 18–34 year-olds (see Chapter 5).16

11.There is a lack of consistency in the age used to define a child when it comes to the marketing, sale, advertising and regulation of energy drinks. In considering its responses to the consultation on restricting the sale of energy drinks, the Government should ensure that advertising restrictions and any restrictions on sale are aligned in order to give a consistent and clear message to young people and parents.

The Government consultation

12.During our inquiry, the Government published chapter 2 of its “plan for action” on childhood obesity.17 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”.18 On 30 August 2018, after we had concluded taking oral evidence, the Government launched this consultation, which closed on 21 November 2018.19 The Government summarised that in its consultation it was:

Aims of this Report

13.This Report is our contribution to the Government consultation. Nonetheless, we expect that the Government will respond to our Report in the usual two-month response period. We focus on the caffeine element of energy drinks and their effects on children in this Report, and we do not examine in detail other caffeinated drinks. Further, as health and retail are devolved matters, this Report focuses on the treatment of energy drinks in England. Specifically, in this Report:

1 British Soft Drinks Association, Code of Practice on energy drinks, April 2015

3 Energy drinks cited in written submission from British Soft Drinks Association (END0018).

5 Earlier this year Aldi, Asda, Boots, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-Op Group and Waitrose introduced voluntary bans on the sale of energy drinks to under 16s.

6 Tesco (END0034), Aldi (END0036), Waitrose (END0037), Morrisons (END0038), Asda (END0039), Sainsbury’s (END0040) and Boots (END0042).

7 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Energy drinks inquiry—publications, accessed 1 November

9 Association of Convenience Stores (END0017)

10 Department of Health and Social Care, Consultation on proposal to end the sale of energy drinks to children, August 2018, p5

11 Department of Health and Social Care (END0041)

12 Fiona M. Brooks, Ellen Klemera, Josefine Magnusson and Kayleigh Chester, “Young People and Energy Drink Consumption in England”—analysis commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care.

13 Energy Drinks Europe (END0011)

14 Department of Health and Social Care, Consultation on proposal to end the sale of energy drinks to children, August 2018

15 The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media. It applies the Advertising Codes, which are written by the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP). ASA, Children: Targeting, August 2018.

19 Department of Health and Social Care, Consultation on proposal to end the sale of energy drinks to children, August 2018

Published: 4 December 2018