WASHINGTON—The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing today on the marketing of energy drinks to minors and included testimony from three top energy drink makers, as well as experts in pediatric health, toxicology and food marketing. Using their recent report, "What's all the Buzz About?", which focused on labeling and marketing problems with energy drinks, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) Ed Markey (D-MA) and Committee Chariman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) expressed their concerns over the marketing of energy drinks to children, reasoning the high content of caffeine and other stimulants in these beverages pose safety dangers for this age group. They asked representatives from Red Bull North America (RBNA), Rockstar Inc. and Monster Beverage Corp. if they would commit to making several changes to their marketing-related policies and activities to stop marketing and targeting minors.
“I’m concerned that energy drink companies are aggressively marketing their products to teens on television, and through social media and event sponsorships even as public health experts are raising some serious, disturbing questions about these drinks," Rockefeller said. “With doctors saying that energy drinks pose risks of heart arrhythmia, increased blood pressure and dehydration—particularly among young people—I want to explore whether companies are being responsible in the way they market energy drinks."
Sen. Durbin attributed the boom in energy drink sales to marketing to children, including adolescents, and called out the drink makers from the start. "Across the board, makers of energy drinks say they do not market their products to children," he said. "But then you hear about samples of energy drinks being distributed at places where teens hang out—like sports events, concerts, local parks, and SAT prep courses."
Durbin further likened the current state of energy drink marketing towards children to the old marketing by cigarette makers, who once claimed to not market to kids, but were eventually shown to foster early addiction in children. "We're getting the same run-around from these energy drink companies," he exclaimed.
In her testimony, Amy Taylor, VP and general manager of RBNA, assured her company wants to play a positive role in public health, and parents are the best gatekeepers for what and how much energy drinks their children consume. " RBNA is confident that our products are just as safe to consume as the many other caffeine containing beverages, regardless whether the caffeine is naturally occurring or added," she said. "Accordingly, we remain open to discussing changes for the entire beverage industry, and believe that any comprehensive effort regarding child and teen nutrition must include all sugar- and caffeine-containing beverages (e.g. caffeinated soft drinks, coffee, and tea)."
Ignoring the impact of high caffeine coffee drinks and espresso shots on children was a big point made by the three energy drink makers at the hearing. Janet Weiner, Rockstar CFO and COO, said it is important for the committee to understand the largest intake of caffeine for teenagers, who frequent coffeehouses, is not coming from energy drinks, but from coffee. "We are being demonized," she said.
The committee members did not want to talk about coffee, but chose to keep the focus on several examples from the companies' social media sites, exhibited during the hearing, that showed children engaging with the companies' products and related merchandise, as well as various taglines such as suggesting the children were fans of the drinks/brand for life and advocating "pounding" the drinks.
Weiner said the examples involving Rockstar were isolated, but Sen. Markey produced several additional examples later in the hearing.
Rodney Sacks, chairman and CEO of Monster, said while Monster believes that its products are safe for all consumers, the company does not market to children, and has never done so. " From the time that Monster was first introduced into the marketplace in 2002, the Company has included an advisory statement on every can that Monster is not recommended for children." He further noted Monster has told its network of independent distributors not to market the energy drink to children or at K-12 schools.
Sen. Markey asked Sacks if he'd commit to including language in future contracts with distributors and third parties that would prohibit them from marketing to children and include penalties if they violate this rule. "I'd be favorably inclined to see what we could do, yes," Sacks answered.
Markey and Blumenthal repeatedly asked the three energy drink company reps if they would commit to changing specific marketing practices and policies, including not condoning rapid consumption of energy drinks (most agreed); refrain from saying higher concentration or consumption of caffeine is better (mixed reaction);and not use any child under 18 in marketing (rejection).
The biggest point of contention during the hearing seemed to be the definition of children for purposes of marketing energy drinks. The senators were persistent on defining children as under 18, and boosted their argument with testimony from Jennifer Harris, Ph.D., senior research scientist and director of marketing services for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Harris explained energy drink marketing is aspirational, and if you market to 18 year-olds, you will appeal to 15 and 16 year-olds who want to be grown up. To assertion from the companies that n o one can control who sees marketing, she said, "this is simply not true."
However, the companies conditionally agreed to make marketing changes for those under 12 years old, arguing reams of safety data from around the world show their products are safe for consumption by people aged 13 and older. "Red Bull is safe for teens 18 to 34," Taylor assured, "To restrict teens...sends the wrong message."
Sen. Markey turned to Marcie Beth Schneider, M.D., member of the Committee on Nutrition at the American Academy of Pediatrics, who explained not all 12, 13 and 14 year olds are the same. She said children can be the same age and have vastly different levels of body development, so differentiating 12 year-olds from 13 and 14 year-olds for energy drink purposes is irresponsible and dangerous, as the stimulants affect every system in the children's bodies.
"Thirteen and 18 year-olds are two different species," Markey concluded. "To lump them together is completely wrong." In the end, Markey said the Commerce Committee is concerned about marketing practices clearly aimed at children and adolescents, which is creating a culture of dangerous, addictive consumption in young people. The industry's obliviousness to this is a concern," he said to the company reps. "We are saying stop it."