Energy drinks and children Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.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. (Paragraph 11)

Effects of consumption on children

2.Many young people choose to consume energy drinks, and some consume them in significant volumes. Energy drink consumption is higher on average in the UK than in other countries in Europe. Nevertheless, young people consume caffeine from a variety of sources, including tea, coffee, cola and chocolate. (Paragraph 42)

3.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. (Paragraph 43)

4.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. There are ethical questions related to undertaking research on the effects of energy drink consumption on children, which would need to be borne in mind when designing further research. (Paragraph 44)

A statutory or a voluntary ban?

5.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. (Paragraph 59)

6.On balance, 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. (Paragraph 60)

Labelling and advertising

7.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. We therefore recommend that 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 and not merely in ‘the small print’. (Paragraph 70)

8.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. (Paragraph 77)

Marketing and advertising

9.Energy drinks companies claim that they do not directly advertise or promote their products to children, but several leading brands are nevertheless strongly associated with sporting events which children may find attractive. The Government should keep under review whether it is appropriate for energy drinks to sponsor sporting events. (Paragraph 87)

10.We believe that some energy drinks company associations with sports could be construed as advertising to children and building brand awareness among those that their products are not suitable. We were not convinced by Monster Energy’s explanation of the contradiction between claiming that children are not the target audience for their brand and providing the Monster Army as an athlete development scheme for 13–21 year-olds. While we have no wish to see the Monster Army programme discontinued, we recommend that the Advertising Standards Agency review the marketing and nature of this programme as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 88)

11.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. (Paragraph 97)

12.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 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 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. The ASA should report by the end of March 2019 specifically on the promotional games drawn to our attention (which are set out at paragraph 101 of our Report). (Paragraph 103)

Published: 4 December 2018