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Energy Drink Sales to Children

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the sale of energy drinks to children.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased and proud to have been able to secure this debate. The UK’s growing childhood dietary and obesity crisis is something that the Government need to address. Government policy holds the key to that challenge and I hope that today’s debate will contribute to that.

To many of us, the sight of a child drinking a can of energy drink might not be something that we would even take a second look at—it has become so commonplace now—but in the last 10 to 15 years there has been an explosion in the popularity of these drinks, particularly among children and adolescents. It is estimated that between 2006 and 2014 the sale of energy drinks in the UK increased by 155%, and it is still growing. While the soft drinks market is generally declining, the global energy drinks market is projected to grow by 3.5% annually until at least 2020. On average, young people in the UK consume more energy drinks than those in other EU countries, which means that it is British children who are most at risk from the growing energy drinks market.

Furthermore, it is becoming clearer that many children and parents are just not aware of the health risks of regularly consuming these drinks. Many parents and young people will not be aware that on the back of a can of energy drink are the words, “Not recommended for children.” The Government rightly ensure that any product that is high in caffeine carries that warning. How can it be that the Government force companies to warn that their products are unsafe for children to drink, but follow with no enforcement measures or protections against children drinking them? Why are we allowing our young people to drink these highly caffeinated drinks, often several times a day, without any protection?

I asked myself that question after watching Jamie Oliver’s “Friday Night Feast”. The programme investigated the dangers and the prevalence of children regularly drinking these drinks. I was shocked. A massive 68% of those aged between 10 and 18 said they were consumers of energy drinks, with 12% of those saying they drank as much as 1 litre of energy drink per session. To put that in perspective, a single litre bottle of energy drink can contain the equivalent caffeine of five shots of espresso and 12 teaspoons of sugar. Even more shockingly, they can be purchased for as little as 79p. I like my coffee in the morning as much as anyone else, but I think Members would join me in my shock if ahead of us in the morning queue for our lattes we saw a 10-year-old child order and drink a double, triple or even quadruple espresso. Why are children allowed to purchase these energy drinks?

In my area of Teesside earlier this year a 16-year-old child was allowed to purchase 12 cans of energy drink from a single store. He went on to down five to six cans in a single sitting—the equivalent of approximately seven shots of espresso. He did it because he said he needed a boost to get through his session at college, but he was sent home from school later that day by teachers said to be fuming at his behaviour. Luckily, he had no immediate health problems as a result. However, had he drunk any more, it is possible that it could have caused cardiac arrest or other serious health problems. There are currently no protections or measures to limit the amount of these drinks that a child can purchase. It is a danger to young people and something that needs to be addressed.

One of the biggest problems is the way these drinks are promoted and advertised to children and young people. They are marketed as giving boosts to physical or mental performance, which means that children are purchasing and drinking them before school or sports, in the perverse belief that they are somehow improving their mental or physical health.

My hon. Friend might be aware that Ross High School in Tranent in my constituency introduced “fizz-free February” in 2017, stopping the sale of energy and carbonated drinks. They carried it on, with the consent of the pupils, and all the high schools in East Lothian joined fizz-free February in 2018. It is a voluntary action taken by the schools and children. Does my hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to empower schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I congratulate those schools on showing leadership and having a beneficial effect on children’s ability to learn in school. He is absolutely right that the key is Government policy. There is too much confusion, and we should not rely on schools and shops preventing children from accessing energy drinks.

Studies show that regularly consuming large quantities of caffeine can result in increased blood pressure, sleep disturbance, headaches and stomach aches. Energy drinks have also been proven to affect children’s mental health, causing self-destructive behaviour, insomnia, problems with behavioural regulation and poor lifestyle behaviours, such as a poor diet and the consumption of fast food. It has also been shown that children who drink energy drinks are more likely to consume alcohol, smoke or take drugs in later life. Governments of all parties have introduced important and much-needed measures to tackle childhood obesity and poor dietary health, but I believe that if we leave this avenue open, children will be at risk of poor health impacts, both now and in their future life.

I am sure that many companies will say that they do not directly market their products to children, but energy drinks are highly sweetened and are often sold for as little as 30p, and the packaging sometimes contains marketing techniques such as video game rewards. In addition, studies have found that children perversely associate these sometimes unhealthy drinks with sporting activities. Many of the larger energy drink manufacturers sponsor extreme sports events such as the Red Bull cliff diving series, or major sporting occasions such as the Carabao cup.

Energy drinks are often associated with children’s favourite sports or a general culture of glamorous, adventurous, risk-taking behaviour. Many carry names such as Relentless, Monster and Boost, which often look thrilling and risky to children and have associations with danger and excitement. Young people report that they see such products advertised on television, in video games and through sports sponsorships, despite pledges from advertisers to reduce such advertising. In a recent study organised by Teesside University, in conjunction with four other universities in the north-east, one child said:

“If you’re playing on your tablet or something and you’re playing a game, an advert pops up for Relentless.”

Will the Minister promise to look at ways of strengthening the rules on how those companies advertise and promote themselves to children?

Consuming energy drinks affects not just children’s health but their education. Many teachers, teaching unions and school staff have expressed the view that students should not be able to purchase such drinks. A survey carried out by the NASUWT found that 13% of teachers and school leaders identified energy drinks as the main contributor to poor behaviour that they had witnessed. Teachers have previously said that such drinks are a contributory factor to classroom violence and falling asleep in class.

Many schools have already prohibited energy drinks from school grounds, but that is not enough on its own. Teachers need Government support. Banning energy drinks from schools does not prevent students from drinking them off site and then coming into school. A study commissioned by the Scottish Government found that one in four 13 to 15-year-olds purchased an energy drink when they went out of school at lunch time. Will the Minister commit to supporting teachers and schools by joining them in prohibiting children from buying such drinks?

I am sure that many Members have seen in the press that retailers such as Waitrose, Tesco and WHSmith, and many cinema chains and petrol garages, have already stopped selling energy drinks to under-16s. I welcome those steps and agree that they are important, but they are not enough. The Association of Convenience Stores estimates that 53% of independent convenience retailers do not sell energy drinks, but the lack of clarity about how often children can purchase and drink them means that there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of outlets where children can buy such drinks with no protection. I recently heard of an offer that enabled children to buy four cans of an energy drink for £1. I heard that one child was going in, buying four drinks and splitting them among his friends. They are readily accessible and very cheap, and there is not enough clarity or regulation, so retailers do not know how to handle it.

It is not enough for the Government to leave it to retailers, because only responsible retailers will take the responsible steps. That would leave children’s health to the lottery of whether their local shop will sell the drinks to them. When asked about this issue previously in Parliament and in written questions, Ministers have said that they will follow it and look at any scientific evidence, but there is already ample scientific evidence—at least 11 qualitative and quantitative studies have been carried out on the subject.

Teesside University has recently joined four other universities in the north-east to carry out research on this subject. It found that such drinks are readily available in many local shops, and that own-brand energy drinks are among the cheapest drinks available— nearly always cheaper than water. It also found that branding, marketing and social norms are important factors in shaping children’s consumption choices. Children have found that the information on the packaging is sometimes confusing. One child taking part in the study said:

“Some younger kids, they read the label but say they don’t know what…4.8 sugar means. They don’t know what it means—is that a lot or is it not a lot?”

The Government must take further steps to better educate young people about food choices and the effect that sugar, caffeine and other substances can have on the body. When asked about this topic previously, Ministers have referred to the upcoming childhood obesity plan, which the Minister is taking forward. Will he clarify whether the Government envisage changes to the sale of energy drinks being part of the obesity strategy, or will there be separate measures? Will he meet me to discuss this issue further?

We know that consuming energy drinks is not healthy for children, that teachers and parents want them prohibited, that many retailers do not believe it is right that children can purchase them and that, given that the packaging carries a warning, energy drink producers themselves do not think children should be consuming them. The Government have said in the past that they are willing to look at the issue, but will the Minister commit to listening to parents, teachers, manufacturers, retailers and health campaigners such as Jamie Oliver and implement a full ban on the sale of these highly caffeinated and, frankly, highly dangerous energy drinks to children?

All good things come to those who wait. After the delay, here we are.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on securing the debate. I know that there are competing pressures on Members’ time today, but I am surprised that there are not more here for this debate on a big, emerging issue that is gathering momentum. My ministerial colleagues and I have been asked about it at Health questions previously—perhaps that is what the hon. Lady was referring to. I thank her for introducing the debate and for setting out the case very clearly.

We all agree that the regular consumption of energy drinks by children is not appropriate at all. I say that as one who has young children. That applies especially to those under 16, as energy drinks often contain a lot of caffeine and sugar—I will talk about both. They are often coupled with other sources of caffeine and sugar in children’s diets. Too much of a good thing, or too much of a bad thing in this case, can lead to difficulties sleeping and headaches—I have heard stories about that—and there is obviously an effect in terms of tooth decay and weight gain. In addition to the health and wellbeing impacts of the risk to children of consuming large volumes of energy drinks, there is anecdotal evidence, notably from schools, that their consumption has a very negative impact on children’s behaviour and, in turn, their learning. The hon. Lady gave an example from her constituency, and I have heard about countless cases as a constituency MP and through the media. It is right that we are having this debate and that we continue to examine the issue of the consumption of energy drinks by children, but this is not just about children; adults should also look at the small print on such drinks, because too much is not good for anybody.

The hon. Lady gave some figures, and I will give some of my own. A 250 ml can of an energy drink usually contains about 80 mg of caffeine, which is similar to two or three cans of cola, a mug of instant coffee or, as the hon. Lady said, an espresso. Some of the smaller energy “shot” products contain twice as much caffeine.

EU food information regulations require specific labelling for high-caffeine drinks and foods where caffeine has been added for a psychological effect. Such labelling helps consumers to identify foods with a high caffeine content where they may not expect to find it. The British Soft Drinks Association’s code of practice states that high-caffeine soft drinks should not be marketed, advertised or promoted to children under 16. It is right about that, of course. Amid growing public concern, and in line with that voluntary industry code, we have recently seen major supermarkets banning the sale of such products to under-16s. When companies do the right thing, I always think it is worth putting that on the record. Asda, Aldi, Co-op Food, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have all voluntarily decided to ban the sale of these products to under-16s and they deserve credit for that action.

It is important that the Government remain open-minded and continue to look at any new evidence that emerges. I promise the House that we certainly are and we certainly will. The European Food Safety Authority published an opinion on the safety of caffeine less than two years ago, in May 2015. It derived safe daily intakes for adults and children and concluded that, when consumed at those intake levels, caffeine raises no serious concerns for the general healthy population, but based on current evidence on caffeine safety, the Food Standards Agency, for which I have ministerial responsibility, advises that children or other people sensitive to caffeine should consume caffeine only in moderation. That advice has remained unchanged up to this point. The hon. Lady may be aware that in March, the Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into the consumption of energy drinks. We welcome the inquiry very much and we recently submitted our evidence on behalf of the Government—I know she will look for that.

In the light of renewed, obvious and justified public concern, recently the Food Standards Agency has undertaken a literature review to identify if any new robust scientific studies have been conducted since the 2015 EFSA review that I mentioned. On 20 March, the results of the review and the information provided by the #notforchildren campaign were presented to the UK’s committee on toxicity of chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment, for consideration. In particular, the committee is now considering whether a review of caffeine consumption in children and adolescents is required to ascertain whether the studies published since the EFSA opinion add significantly to the body of evidence.

Retailers have acted to restrict the consumption of energy drinks. I am pleased to note that alongside all the supermarkets that I mentioned, other prominent retailers such as WHSmith and Boots, which have a significant high street presence in my constituency and, I am sure, in the hon. Lady’s, have also voluntarily acted to restrict their sales to under-16s. She mentioned this but it is worth repeating that many small retailers, which may be seen as the villain in the piece—I do not think that the facts bear that out—restrict the sales of energy drinks to children. I understand that around half the Association of Convenience Stores’ nearly 50,000 shops have implemented a voluntary ban on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s. Good for them and thanks to them.

In schools, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and the hon. Member for Redcar, energy drinks are not permitted within the school food standards. Schools have the power to confiscate, retain or dispose of any item that is banned by the school rules, which can include energy drinks. Some schools already do that. I was very interested to hear about fizz-free February—I will google it later and see where it takes me.

The school food standards came into force in January 2015. They define the food and drinks that must be provided, those that are restricted and those that must not be provided. They apply to all food and drink provided to pupils on and off school premises. I am due to see the Schools Minister shortly about another matter, but I will discuss this issue with him and I thank the hon. Lady for raising it.

Does the Minister have any comments about the advertising of high-energy drinks through computer games and on social media?

That is an emerging policy area that I am taking very close interest in, as the Public Health Minister and someone with an interest in the public health and child obesity agendas. In the same way that the major retailers that I put on the record have shown what I suggest is a great deal of corporate responsibility, I suggest that the producers of these drinks might also take a long, hard look and consider their social and moral responsibility, so that they can stay within the spirit of the guidelines.

In the spirit of co-operation, because there was a mention of the Scottish Government’s study, what engagement has the Minister had with Public Health Ministers in the devolved nations? Does he agree that sharing ideas, approaches and policies across the UK and beyond will be the best way to tackle this issue?

I completely agree. Personally, I have not had that engagement, but I will check with my officials and I will be surprised if they have not. If the hon. Lady wishes to facilitate that engagement, I would be very happy.

I want to touch briefly on sugar. Many energy drinks contain high levels of sugar. Studies conducted in children and adolescents indicate that higher consumption of sugars, including the sugar-sweetened drinks that we are talking about, is also associated with a greater risk of tooth decay, weight gain and all the other health impacts—look at the challenges that we have in the health service with type 2 diabetes. Latest figures continue to show that our childhood obesity rates remain far too high. Almost a quarter of children are overweight or obese when they start primary school in England, rising to around a third by the time they leave. That is not good enough and the Government and I are far from happy about it. Intakes of sugar are currently more than double the recommended amount across all age groups. Teenagers are consuming just over 14% of their energy from sugar, and over a fifth of this sugar intake comes from sugar-sweetened soft drinks.

Key measures in what I think was a well received, world-leading childhood obesity plan, launched in August 2016, include the soft drinks industry levy, which seems to have been around for ages but came into force less than two weeks ago, on 6 April. We are already seeing improvements—a number of soft drink manufacturers have announced that they have or they will reformulate their products to reduce sugar levels. I have mentioned many times in this House the manufacturers that I think deserve credit for doing that and I hope more will follow. More than half of all drinks that we estimate would otherwise have been in scope of the levy have reduced their sugar content to below the levy threshold, which was the intention of the policy.

The sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme is being led and run by Public Health England, for which I have responsibility, and applies to all sectors of industry: retailers, manufacturers and the out-of-home sector, which includes restaurants, takeaways and delivery companies, cafés and the good old-fashioned pub. Public Health England will shortly publish an assessment of progress on sugar reduction, which I eagerly await. We will use that to determine whether sufficient progress has been made in our view and whether alternative or additional levers need to be considered.

The hon. Member for Redcar mentioned the possibility of revision to the child obesity plan. We always said that the child obesity plan was the start of a conversation, not the end. She mentioned Jamie Oliver; I pay great tribute to his work and that of his team, who I met recently just before the Easter recess when we discussed this issue and many others. We have always said that if we need to go further we will, and that assessment that PHE is carrying out on the initial impact of the industry soft drinks levy will be part of the determination of whether we need to do that. I have said in the House before and I will say again that the hon. Lady should watch this space.

In conclusion, the actions that we have talked about and the stuff that we look to cannot entirely eliminate the sale of energy drinks to under-16s. However, I assure hon. Members and the public that this is a matter that the Government, the Secretary of State and I are looking at very carefully. We will monitor the situation extremely closely in the light of the emerging scientific evidence and public concern—I understand that we have to take both into consideration. If we conclude that further Government action is needed to restrict the sale of energy drinks to children, we will not hesitate to act. Our actions have shown in the past that we never hesitate to act when the evidence points us in that direction.

Question put and agreed to.