Lifestyle Economics

Energy drinks – yet again, the government is jumping on the ‘banned’ wagon

I don’t remember the last time I saw a six-year-old queuing for a cappuccino in Pret.

Nor have I ever noticed one standing in line, with their own cash, paying for their fizzy drink of choice over the counter at corner shop.

That’s because realistically these instances cannot happen without the assistance of an adult, who supplies a child with the oversight and money.

This is true for any product – including energy drinks. If any young child is getting their hands on a can of Red Bull or Monster, it is because it has been handed to them by a parent, a friend’s parent, an older sibling, or a babysitter.

In other words, it’s been gifted by someone who should know better than to give kids a dose of caffeine or sugar far beyond what they can handle.

So why is the government using its time and resources to launch a consultation on the sale of energy drinks, which includes banning the product for under-18s? Banning the sale of energy drinks to six-year-olds is going to have no impact on the six-year-olds who are drinking them. That behaviour can only be curbed by increasing the onus of personal responsibility on adults, whose actions will make or break their children’s diets.

It is therefore clear that the intent of this campaign is not to influence kids who are so young they cannot leave their front door without some assistance, but rather to restrict teenagers – who by many legal standards are considered autonomous human beings – functioning in the real world.

We accept that different privileges kick in at different ages. Film ratings are determined this way. At age 16, you can pay taxes, join the army, and even getting married (with parental permission). At 17, you can drive. Quite rightly, you need to wait until you’re 18 to access tobacco and alcohol products.

But energy drinks are not beer. A blanket ban for anyone under 18 is obviously an overstep.

After all, some MPs are calling for 16-year-olds to get the vote. In what world is someone old enough to weigh in on the future of the country, but not to have a sugary, caffeinated drink?

And on the subject of ingredients, energy drinks don’t contain nearly the amount of sugar and caffeine as is being suggested. As my colleague Christopher Snowdon points out, “energy drinks have the same amount of caffeine in them as a cup of instant coffee… while most energy drinks have a similar amount of sugar in them as a regular soft drink and less sugar than a typical dessert”.

While responsible parents wouldn’t want young kids downing a cup of instant coffee or a full bottle of coke, most would also think it ridiculous to stop teenagers from buying a bottle of lemonade or a slice of chocolate cake.

Energy drinks are just the latest target of a nanny state that is growing increasingly confident in its ability to curb the freedoms of British people.

In moderation, these drinks are no better or worse than your average treat or unhealthy snack. Yet the government is using the idea of them – or, the idea of your small child consuming them – to scare people into accepting a crackdown in a much wider context.

There may be a case for some level of ban – we don’t want 11-year-olds wandering into a shop with pocket money to purchase a drink they’re not ready to handle. But by bringing teenagers one year below voting age into the mix, the state is threatening to overstep the mark and enter into draconian – and absurd – territory.

This ban is by no means done and dusted. Let’s hope the consultation produces a reasoned and liberal outcome. But I won’t hold my breath that desire for state interference will de-escalate anytime soon. “Banning”, these days, is the name of the game.

Kate is Associate Director of the IEA. Kate oversees the IEA’s Media Centre and digital platforms, creating and commissioning content for the website, social media, and ieaTV. Kate regularly features across the national media, including appearances on BBC News, Sky News, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV and BBC’s Question Time.

This article first appeared in City AM. 

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