Companies pledge to refrain from marketing energy drinks to children under 12 years old, in accordance with American Beverage Association (ABA) guidelines. However, when it comes to marketing to under 18s, the Senators say many brands fail to display the same commitment.
In particular, the ‘Buzz Kill’ report attacks Dr. Pepper Snapple, Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar – which together represent 90% of US energy drink sales – for ‘significant gaps in making commitments to protect adolescents from targeted marketing campaigns.’
The reports says immediate steps should be taken to make sure any adverse events from energy drinks are disclosed, cease marketing of energy drinks to under 18s, and ensure children and teenagers are adequately protected from ‘deceptive and potentially harmful advertising practices.’
A booming market
The US market for energy drinks saw 60% growth from 2008 – 2012, and is predicted to become a $21bn business by 2017. The report says energy drinks are increasingly consumed by young people, with around 30% of adolescents under 18 reporting regular consumption.
However, the Senators say the safety of energy drinks has been called into question by reports of adverse health events, including cases of sudden death among young people with heart conditions. The report also cites research on the possible interactions between energy drink use and neurodevelopment in adolescents.
Senators survey 16 companies
The United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing in 2013 to review marketing techniques used by energy drink companies, and listen to the concerns of health experts on the effect of excessive caffeine consumption in young people.
Following this hearing, Senators Edward J Markey (D-Mass.), John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), Richard J. Durbin (D-III) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote to 16 companies to assess how the industry would commit to voluntary measures to protect young people.
In their report, the Senators say, “While energy drink companies have repeatedly claimed that their target consumers are adults, only four of the 12 responding companies— AriZona Beverages USA, Celsius , XYIENCE, and The Coca-Cola Company — committed that they would not market to youth under age 18.
"The companies that declined to make this commitment— Red Bull North America, Monster Energy Company, Rockstar, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group— constitute more than 90% of the energy drink market.
“All companies committed that they would not target marketing to youth under age 12.”
Only one company, Xyience, committed to all specific age restriction marketing measures proposed by the Senators in their letters, such as labelling products as not intended for under 18s, and restricting social media access for this age group.
Clif Shots, Crunk Energy, Jamba, and Sambazon did not respond to the Senators’ letters.
No restrictions on marketing to teenagers
Current voluntary guidelines that apply to the energy drink industry do not restrict direct marketing at teenagers. The ABA Guidance for Responsible Labeling and Marketing of Energy Drinks states that energy drinks shouldn’t be marketed to children under 12.
“Energy drink companies have insisted that their target market is adults,” the report says. “However, when pressed to take specific action to limit marketing to youth, many companies confine their commitments to the under 12 age group identified in current industry guidelines.”
“In responses to the Senators’ letters, all 12 responding brands explicitly agreed not to market to children under 12 years old.
"However, with respect to youth under age 18, only AriZona, Celsius, XYIENCE and the Coca-Cola Company provided explicit assurances they would not market to this age group.
“In stark contrast, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Monster Energy Company, Red Bull North America, and Rockstar, declined to commit to restricting advertising and marketing to adolescents under 18.”
“Unfortunately, as long as early development of brand loyalty is seen as a competitive market advantage, energy drink companies will continue with the practice of marketing to teens in the absence of regulation that prohibits it.”
ABA guidance ‘troubling’
The 2014 update of ABA guidance removed a previous commitment not to market energy drinks as sports drinks, a move the Senators describe as ‘troubling.’
“Unfortunately, energy drink companies are now operating in a space that significantly blurs the lines between these two categories, producing products that are marketed as helping with rehydration and electrolyte balance, but that also contain high levels of caffeine and other specialty energy drink ingredients,” they say.
“This merging of sports and energy drinks could cause serious confusion for consumers and result in unintentional consumption of large amounts of caffeine, when intending to drink only for hydration.”
The report adds the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) should guide the industry on voluntary reporting of adverse events associated with energy drinks, and that companies should provide this information.