Energy rush: is it time to can drinks for teens?
Our reporter on the football club that put the health of its young members first
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
'It's mighty stuff, man, it gets you going, like, you should try some," suggests 17-year-old Tommy with his school tie pulled to one side.
He throws his head back and the last few droplets of his energy drink pour into his mouth, he gives a quick belch and then crushes the can before chucking it in a bin.
It's 4.30pm and schools out for another day in Cork. Outside a newsagents in the city centre, a crowd of students gather before heading for home and among them many are downing energy drinks - for some, it's not their first and won't be their last of the day.
"I'd often have two or three cans a day," explains Tommy.
His friend says: "My mate 'Frisbee' drinks five cans a day and there isn't a bother on him."
When I tell them about the worrying findings of a report carried out by food safety and nutrition board Safefood into the contents of energy drinks sold in Ireland today, they laugh.
The research, published this week, found that one of the drinks contains nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar, that the average is around six teaspoons and many of the energy drinks have a high caffeine content.
Indeed, many cans on the Irish market today will carry warnings for pregnant women as high-caffeine consumption increases the risk of late miscarriages and stillbirths. And one study found that there are proven negative consequences of caffeine consumption among children and adolescents, which can cause physical dependence and addiction.
But the students I met didn't seem too concerned.
"Sure we're told everything is bad for us. Like we know fags are the worst but sure nobody is going to stop selling them," says 16-year-old Ciara, "and if those drinks give us energy and help us concentrate in class, I would have thought that'd be a good thing."
This week the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne introduced a sugar tax, to be imposed from 2018, which will target drinks containing large amounts of sugar. Before Budget 2016, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar had sought a 20pc tax on sugar-sweetened drinks as a way of tackling obesity but Minister for Finance Michael Noonan ruled out the sugar tax in the October budget.
The battle to raise awareness in Ireland about the potential health risks associated with the excessive consumption of some energy drinks is proving hugely difficult.
"Our report found that young men are the primary target market. Males aged between 15 and 24 are the highest consumers on the island of Ireland, with 64pc of those surveyed saying they consume energy drinks and 54pc admitting that they have them at least one a week," explains Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director of Human Health and Nutrition with Safefood.
With cans costing as little as 50c each, the quest is for high-volume consumption and the figures don't lie. The estimated value of the energy and sports-drink market here in 2015 came to a staggering €130.4m and each year those revenue figures grow and new products and brands enter the market.
Dieticians and medical experts continually warn that increasing consumption of stimulant drinks will contribute to Ireland's obesity problems and have other adverse health effects. And there are other implications, too, such as insomnia and impact on behaviour.
The use of energy drinks as a mixer with alcohol is also on the increase.
"Mixing an energy drink, which is a stimulant, with alcohol, which is a depressant, is like driving a car with your feet on the accelerator and brake pedals at the same time; it stimulates a person so they actually end up drinking for longer as they may not be aware how drunk they really are," warns Operation Transformation's GP, Dr Ciara Kelly.
With promises of boosting energy and a large focus on sport, adrenalin activities and music, the products pushed by the energy-drinks industry are designed to entice younger consumers. Last year alone, almost €2m was spent on energy-drink advertising in Ireland - many sports stars endorsing products. Additionally, many brands host dozens of dedicated social-media accounts promoting their drinks. For example, the Safefood report found that Red Bull had 121 associated Twitter sites and 61 Facebook sites.
So what can be done?
"We hope that by providing accurate information, we're able to inform young people, parents and wider Irish society about the potential harm caused by excessive consumption of energy drinks and that they then will take appropriate action," Dr Foley Nolan told Review, adding "but we are not a 'nanny state' and can only hope that people conduct their own personal-risk assessments and take sensible decisions with their health."
Thousands of households, schools and sporting bodies across the country have already taken matters into their own hands, banning energy drinks outright.
At the Strand Celtic football club in Sligo, players under the age of 18 are not allowed to consume energy drinks.
The ban, which came into place in 2011, was inspired by a talk to the club given by Professor Donal O'Shea, who told parents and mentors about the various health risks associated with childhood obesity and the overconsumption of certain food types.
"Our chairman, Brian McDermott, asked Donal to come in and speak to us about these drinks and unhealthy eating and drinking in general," explains the club's PRO, Damien McCallion.
"We have children here from as young as four, so we're very conscious of protecting them and doing our best for them.
''A huge crowd turned up to listen to Donal, including so many parents.
Also, local dentist Dr Breda Gaynor spoke to us about the dangers to young teeth from excessive sugar consumption. After that meeting, in conjunction with parents and club officers, we decided to implement the ban and it's been very successful."
Club officers also try to ensure that the energy-drink ban continues long after Strand Celtic's young players have left the club ground.
"There's no point in the kids and teenagers running like crazy for a couple of hours only to consume energy drinks when they get home so we encourage them to stick to the water which, in fairness, most of them do," says Damien.
And this week, as 13-year-olds arrived for training at the club ground just 200 metres away from the stunning Strandhill coast, many carried water bottles and some even energy-drink bottles containing water with the brand labels blacked out.
But while the young male and female footballers in Strand Hill are resisting the temptation to pop that can... so many others across the country are doing the very opposite with worrying frequency.