Red Bull may give you wings, but the energy drink companies’ attempts to reach minors may soon be grounded on the eastern half of Long Island.
Suffolk County lawmakers approved three controversial bills Tuesday aimed at keeping energy drinks out of the hands of minors, citing health concerns, over objections of beverage industry lobbyists who called it unfair. County Executive Steve Bellone has not signaled whether he will sign the bills into law.
The proposals include legislation prohibiting the sale and distribution of energy drinks to minors at county parks, prohibiting energy drink companies from mailing energy drink coupons and free samples to minors and launching a public awareness campaign about the potential health effects of such beverages.
“Far too many people are unaware of the effects excessive caffeine consumption can have on the body,” said Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a pediatrician who chairs the health committee. “Excessive consumption of caffeine can aggravate preexisting conditions and contribute to a variety of health problems.”
He deemed the legislation the first of its kind in the nation, which comes as the Food and Drug Administration is investigating the health effects of energy drinks. Like-minded county legislation had been unsuccessfully tried three years ago.
Parents, doctors, county health officials and local substance abuse treatment providers expressed support for the proposals before the vote. But the energy drink industry lobbyists questioned the accuracy of the research the proponents relied upon.
“If energy drinks were so harmful we would have definitive evidence,” said Matthew Vishnick, an energy drink lobbyist who called the bills unconstitutional. A representative of the American Beverage Association made similar appeals to the legislature.
Leaders of the Suffolk County Quality Consortium, a nonprofit drug rehab umbrella group, suggested that children drinking high-caffeine beverages such as Red Bull, Monster and Amp are at risk for substance abuse.
Not all lawmakers supported the legislation. Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip) said that the county should give equal treatment to things he deemed as dangerous as energy drinks, such as skateboarding, soccer, coffee and breakfast cereal.
“There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to these drinks,” he said before voting against two of the bills, but for the one barring energy drink companies from mailing marketing materials to minors. “There seems to be science on both sides. I think there are better ways to be spending our time.”
Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) questioned how much the campaign may do to outweigh the $162 million in annual energy drink advertising for an industry that had $7 billion in sales last year. He later voted for the campaign.
“The Truth About Stimulant Drinks” will be a county-funded TV public service announcement created by whichever local student wins a planned contest to create the best message.
Two parents who blame the death of their teenage children on energy drinks cheered passage of the legislation.
They include James Shepherd, who said his 15-year-old son, Brian, “died from an unexplained arrhythmia the day he consumed what I believe to have been his first energy drink” that the boy acquired from Red Bull representatives giving out free samples.
Wendy Crossland, who blamed the death of her 14-year-old daughter, Anais, on caffeine toxicity, said she hopes “other counties, cities, and states will follow Suffolk’s lead to protect our children so they don’t face the same tragedy as I and other parents have.”
Bellone is holding a public hearing on the bills Tuesday, April 10 at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.