Maryland lawmakers consider banning sale of energy drinks to minors

Red Bull, Monster Energy and other popular energy drinks would be off-limits to Maryland children under legislation proposed by Montgomery County lawmakers who worry that the sweet, stimulating brews pose a health threat.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D), citing the case of a 14-year-old Hagerstown girl who died after consuming the drinks, has sponsored a bill that would prohibit the sale of energy drinks to minors. The bill would prohibit minors from possessing such drinks and ban them from vending machines.

“The way energy-drink companies sort of target kids in the advertising — it’s just disturbing. It’s kind of the drink of choice,” Dumais said. “It’s sort of a growing concern across the country.”

The bill defines an energy drink as any beverage containing 71 milligrams or more of caffeine in a 12-ounce container, and other ingredients, such as taurine, guarana and panax ginseng. By comparison, a 5-ounce cup of coffee contains 60 to 150 milligrams of caffeine, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Retailers who violate the ban would be subject to fines of up to $500 for a first offense to $2,000 for multiple offenses. The fines go higher — up to $20,000 — for retailers or others who give minors free samples of energy drinks. Minors convicted of illegal possession of an energy drink would be fined $50 upon first offense and up to $100 for succeeding offenses.

Dumais said in an interview Tuesday that she knows critics will accuse her of governmental overreach. But she stressed the ban would target only children.

“Adults can do what they want,” Dumais said. “I just think we have to be a little more careful with kids.”

A companion measure has been filed by Sen. Brian D. Feldman (D-Montgomery).

But a representative for the beverage industry said the bill is based more on emotion than science.

“Public policy should be based on facts and science, and this bill is based on neither,” said Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Beverage Association, which is working with the American Beverage Association to oppose the bill.

Valentino cited a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics showing that coffee now accounts for nearly 24 percent of caffeine consumption among children and adolescents in recent years, compared with 6 percent from energy drinks.

“Contrary to popular perception, energy drinks contain less caffeine than a similarly sized coffee,” Valentino said.

Jeffrie Zellmer, vice president of government relations and community affairs for the Maryland Retailers Association, said the proposed legislation was reaching too far.

“You can go to Afghanistan and get shot, and you can push a bill where you can buy pot, but you can’t buy an energy drink? Come on,” Zellmer said.

There have been efforts in Chicago and other jurisdictions around the country to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors. Suffolk County, N.Y., considered a ban on sales to minors, but instead voted to prohibit sales to minors on county property and to block companies from giving freebies and coupons to underage consumers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in testimony before Congress, said energy drinks pose greater risks than caffeinated drinks because they contain other stimulants. The association also said children should be discouraged from consuming energy drinks.

The Food and Drug Administration limits the amount of caffeine in soft drinks to about 71 milligrams for a 12-ounce can. The FDA, citing doctors in a 2007 advisory on caffeine, suggested that moderate usage — defined as about 200 milligrams per day — was not harmful for most people.

Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner of the federal agency, said last May that up to 400 milligrams a day was “not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects” for healthy adults. He also said that further study of acceptable levels is needed and that the FDA has not set a limit for children.

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