With prices as low as 10p per 100ml and clever marketing campaigns telling consumers these drinks will give them energy for longer, it’s not hard to see why more than two thirds of 10-17-year-olds and a quarter of six-to-nine-year-olds consume energy drinks.
Energy drinks contain a number of ingredients including amino acids, sweeteners and sugars – none of which are necessary or beneficial in the diet of children and young people. Energy drinks also contain high levels of caffeine which, as a children’s doctor, is something that really concerns me.
Caffeine increases activity and heightens attention and awareness and this is often what attracts young people to these drinks in the first place. They buy into the brand; they want an energy boost or something that can keep them going throughout a long day at school. But caffeine has a dark side. It is a direct cause of anxiety and its symptoms and potentially creates vicious cycles of sleep deprivation.
Young people need more sleep than adults. Without their recommended eight to ten hours, they are less able to concentrate, are more likely to become agitated and it can even be the catalyst for mental health problems. Unfortunately, we have a vulnerable group of people who are more likely to use energy drinks in the belief it will re-energise them when in reality it is doing the very opposite. Energy drinks often cause fatigue!
It isn’t just the impact lack of sleep can have on young people that concerns me; it is the possible damage these drinks are doing to the developing brain and cardiovascular system. Caffeine is potentially the most common psychoactive drug used across the world and it’s in so many of our foods. But we know little about the effect it has on children and young people’s development. More research is needed and Government’s timely focus on energy drinks provides opportunity for this.
A ban on the sale of energy drinks to children is likely to spark debate and whilst there is some evidence which indicates that energy drinks have a negative impact on health, we hope that this forthcoming consultation will provide further learning on the positive and negative health benefits. That said, where health concerns are raised, I do believe we have a duty to children to err on the side of caution. Some supermarkets and stores have already taken steps to ban the sale of energy drinks to children and I think that should be applauded.
The pros of a ban are clear. We would have children with better wellbeing, who were better slept, who were more productive at school and who, because of the link with sugar, were probably likely to be less obese.
I believe that with a growing market for energy drinks and evidence indicating they have a negative impact on health, further scrutiny is definitely needed. That’s why we’re pleased to see Government take action on this. As a College, we will be looking at current and emerging evidence as part of our consultation process to inform our position on this issue. In the meantime, and while we are still learning of the true impact these drinks have on child health, any measure put in place to protect children and young people from harm will be one I support.