Anna Turley: Ministers must ban the sale of energy drinks to under-16s
Energy drinks packed with sugar and caffeine have been connected to problems with children’s health – the government must commit to a complete ban on their sale to under-16s, says Anna Turley
There is currently a childhood diet and obesity epidemic in the UK. The government needs to act decisively and take tough action to tackle the growing problem. The soft drinks industry levy, or “sugar tax”, has been an important and welcome tool to help fight the problem.
However, with one in five children obese by the age of 11, there is still much to do. One way I believe the government could help tackle this problem is by prohibiting the sale of energy drinks to anyone under the age of 16. That is why I recently led a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, to set out the evidence.
Energy drinks are cheap, often sold for as little as 30p, highly sweetened and very highly caffeinated. They can contain as much as 12 spoons of sugar and the equivalent of five shots of espresso.
Energy drinks are becoming more and more popular, particularly among young people, with the sale of energy drinks in the UK having increased by 155% between 2006 and 2014. However, many children and parents do not know the serious effects these highly caffeinated drinks can have on a child’s health.
Many parents and young people will not be aware that on the back of a can of energy drink you will see the words “not recommended for children”. The government currently ensures, rightly, that any product that is high in caffeine carries this warning. But how can it be that government forces companies to warn their products are unsafe for children to drink, but follows with no enforcement measures or protections against children drinking them? Why are we allowing our young people to walk into shops and buy these highly caffeinated drinks without any protection?
I was first made aware of the issue while watching Jamie Oliver’s Friday Night Feast. The programme investigated the prevalence and the health risks of children regularly consuming these drinks. It was then raised with me by a number of teachers and constituents.
I was shocked to learn that 68% of 10-18-year-olds said they consume energy drinks, with 12% of those saying they drank as much as one litre of energy drinks per session. There are currently no protections or measures to limit the amount of these drinks a child can purchase; this is a danger to young people and something that I believe needs to be addressed.
In my area of Teesside earlier this year, a 16-year-old was allowed to purchase 12 cans of energy drink from a single store. He then went on to down five to six cans in a single sitting, the equivalent to approximately seven shots of espresso; he did this as he felt he needed a boost to get through a work session at college.
This issue should not be ignored by the government. There are the added effects of children regularly consuming caffeine, such as headaches, palpitations and insomnia. Many schools have also linked the drinks with students’ lack of concentration and behavioural problems. Children and teenagers who drink energy drinks are more likely to consume alcohol, smoke or use drugs, and therefore more likely to cost the NHS in the future.
I am pleased that many retailers have already independently taken the important step of prohibiting the sale of energy drinks to children. Many large supermarket chains and cinemas, along with over half of small convenience stores, have realised the health risks of allowing a child to buy these highly caffeinated drinks, with no limit on how many, or how often they can be consumed.
However, it is not good enough to leave the industry to self-regulate. There should be clear guidance from government to help protect children’s health.
I hope the government will finally join with calls made by myself, health professionals, parents, teachers and health campaigners like Jamie Oliver to implement a full ban on the sale of these drinks to anyone under the age of 16.