UK could ban sales of energy drinks to under 16s

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: getty/bauwimauwi
Pic: getty/bauwimauwi

Related tags Energy drinks Uk Energy drink functional beverage Children

The Labour Party says it will ban the sale of energy drinks to under 16s if it wins the UK’s General Election next month.

The pledge to ban energy drinks was made in Labour’s Child Health Action Plan, published today.

“Dangerously high caffeinated energy drinks containing over 150mg of caffeine per liter will be banned from sale in retail outlets and online to under 16s, as it has become clear to health and education experts that the current caffeine labelling system is failing to prevent young children from purchasing these drinks,” reads the plan.

The 150mg/liter threshold covers most traditional caffeinated energy drinks on the market, including Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar and Prime.

The UK goes to the polls on July 4.

'Absolute nightmare': What’s the problem with energy drinks and children?

Energy drinks are stimulating beverages which commonly include caffeine, taurine, vitamins and other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect.

They have long come under fire for high levels of caffeine and sugar, particularly given that they often appeal to children and adolescents.

A 250ml energy drink contains around 80mg of caffeine, which is around the same as a 200ml cup of filter coffee (90mg), or three cans of cola. That equates to 320mg per liter.

But larger sizes can deliver much more caffeine per can.

Energy drinks also typically contain 65% more sugar than regular soft drinks.

In January this year, more than 40 health organizations called on policy makers to restrict energy drink sales to children​. Their push was accompanied by a review of 57 studies in the Public Health journal.

That review found a ‘strong positive association’ between energy drink consumption and smoking, alcohol use, binge drinking, other substance use and intentions to initiate those behaviors.

It also found associations with short sleep duration, poor sleep quality and low academic performance: as well as noting increased risk of suicide, psychological distress, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms, depressive and panic behaviors, allergic diseases, insulin resistance and dental problems.

UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver - who has spent much of his career campaigning for healthier food for families, including supporting an energy drink ban for children - has welcomed the proposals.

"Why does this matter? It’s a small thing but it’s a big thing," he said. "When we’ve got some of the most unhealthy kids in Europe, we need not one thing but many many things to help our kids fitter, healthier have better outcomes and flourish and be more productive as adults, and cost the NHS less.

"You would be amazed if you saw how many kids have breakfast in the form of an energy drink... We’re talking about three, four, shots of espresso in one of these tins, loads of sugar, absolute nightmare."

The Labour manifesto also pledges to tackle childhood obesity by implementing a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on national television, and ban paid-for advertising of less health foods aimed at children online. 

Regulations for energy drink gather, lose, and re-gather steam...

In the UK, the energy drink category grew 21.6% over the last year (53 weeks to September 2023), reaching £2.2bn, according to market data published by The Grocer in December 2023.

The UK had been due to ban sales of energy drinks to U16s in 2019​, with around 90% of the population reported to be in favor of the ban. But this ban never came into effect. 

Lativa and Lithuania banned the sales of energy drinks to U18s back in 2016​, followed by Poland this year.

As a result, there is currently no regulation on sales of energy drinks to children. A number of major retailers have bought in policies prohibiting sales to U16s: however, that still leaves smaller stores and vending machines unregulated.

The public health review in January bought the issue back into the headlines: with the Obesity Health Alliance, the 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 Association, Obesity Empowerment Network, World Cancer Research Fund, Action on Sugar and 11 local directors of public health all signatories to a call for a ban on energy drink sales to children.

The British Soft Drinks Association sets out a voluntary code of practice on energy drinks – which has been in place since 2010 – which says members should not market or promote energy drinks to U16s.

Responding to Labour’s pledge today, BSDA Director General, Gavin Partington, said: “In line with and in the spirit of our own long-standing Code of Practice​, BSDA members do not market or promote the sale of energy drinks to under 16s and label all high-caffeine beverages as ‘not recommended for children’, so we welcomed the move by retailers to voluntarily restrict sales to under 16s. 

“It’s worth remembering that the European Food Safety Authority has confirmed the safety of energy drink ingredients. We remain committed to supporting their responsible sale but it’s important that any government policy in this area is evidence based.”

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