AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives from the grocery and beverage industries squared off against three medical groups Monday as the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on a bill that would bar energy drink sales to minors.
The committee was considering a bill sponsored by Rep. Katherine Cassidy, D-Lubec, that would make sales of drinks such as Red Bull, Monster Energy and 5-Hour Energy off limits to those younger than 18. Under the bill, LD 753, retailers would risk $50 fines for selling energy drinks to children. The fines would grow to $100 and $500 for subsequent offenses.
The hearing came nearly a month after Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would have barred those younger than 18 from using commercial tanning beds. The debate over that bill, which passed both chambers of the Legislature with mainly Democratic support, elicited criticism from Republicans that the legislation was an attempt to have the government make a decision best left up to parents.
Cassidy, along with representatives from the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Maine Osteopathic Association, said energy drinks can pose health risks to young people because of especially high amounts of caffeine in the drinks.
“Our view is these are sufficiently dangerous that no child should be drinking them,” said Jessa Barnard, associate general counsel for the Maine Medical Association.
For young people, large amounts of caffeine can lead to anxiety, insomnia and sped-up heart rates, Barnard said, citing American Academy of Pediatrics research. Longer-term effects from repeated energy drink consumption include increased risks of obesity and dental decay, she said.
Plus, Cassidy cited a report released earlier this year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that found energy drink-related visits to the emergency room doubled between 2007 and 2011, reaching 20,000. And the federal Food and Drug Administration is investigating reports of energy drink-related deaths.
LD 753 would apply to drinks specifically advertised to boost energy that have 80 mg or more of caffeine in each 8-ounce serving. The drinks covered by the law also would include an ingredient mix containing “methylxanthines, B vitamins and herbal ingredients,” according to the bill text.
A recent Consumer Reports review of the 27 top-selling energy drinks found their caffeine content ranged from 6 mg to 242 mg per serving, with some sold in containers holding more than one serving. An 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine, according to the magazine, while a 16-ounce Starbucks Grande coffee has 330.
Representatives for grocers and convenience stores said the new regulation would impose an added burden on retailers who might unknowingly sell a beverage to a young person covered by the energy drink youth prohibition.
“I think there’s a real problem with the lack of familiarity the average person or store clerk or even employer would have with the ingredients,” said Andy Cashman, a lobbyist representing the New England Convenience Store Association.
“We think that educating parents is the right way to go as with any other topic having to do with what [children] put in their bodies,” said Deborah Hart, a lobbyist representing Hannaford Bros. supermarkets.
Three representatives for the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association — including a lawyer from the Washington lobbying firm Patton Boggs — disputed claims that energy drinks contain unsafe amounts of caffeine and that energy drinks are the cause for a spike in emergency room visits.
“The levels [of caffeine] found in mainstream energy drinks do not pose, in my opinion, a risk to public health to those under the age of 18,” said James Coughlin, a toxicologist who works as an American Beverage Association consultant.
Even as energy drinks have become more widespread, Coughlin said, caffeine intake among teenagers has barely changed. And teenagers consume, on average, about a third the amount of caffeine adults do, he said.
“It essentially is impossible to have a fatal overdose from caffeine-containing beverages,” said John White, interim chairman of the pharmacotherapy department at Washington State University, who testified for the American Beverage Association. “You would have to drink 6 to 12 gallons of energy drinks. That’s just not physically possible.”
White also disputed the report that found a doubling in the amount of energy drink-related emergency room visits. In many of those situations, he said, the patients have underlying medical conditions that are to blame.
“The question is, ‘Is there an association between the consumption of an energy drink and death?’” White said. “It’s a really important point, and it’s something we don’t have the answer to.”