Suffolk can't flex muscle on energy drink issue

Suffolk County legislators are thinking about banning the

Suffolk County legislators are thinking about banning the sale to kids under 19. (Feb. 13, 2012) (Credit: Kevin P Coughlin)

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Late last month, lobbyist Christopher Hahn and others working for energy drink maker Red Bull huddled with Suffolk Legis. William Spencer and several county health board members to hash out their rising health concerns for the young who drink such products.

"I think Red Bull seems to be rather clear in representing their own interests -- economic and marketing," said health board member J. Ronald Gaudreault, former chief executive of Huntington Hospital. "It kind of reminded me of similar meetings 20 years ago when the tobacco industry was steadfastly denying the harmful effects of tobacco."

The meeting was held largely because health board member Tracy Trypuc, a registered nurse, has been pressing the board to urge the county legislature to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors. It is an issue lawmakers put aside two years ago in favor of compromise with the industry. The board of health is expected to take up the energy drink issue at its next meeting Nov. 28.

"Parents and children don't understand what is in these drinks. They can cause heart problems, lead to increased visits to the emergency rooms and even deaths," said Trypuc, who has compiled research for the board as part of her work on a master's degree. "But I'm very frustrated. Every time we seem to take a step forward, we hit a snag."

Hahn, a vice president for the powerhouse lobbying firm Tonio Burgos and Associates, said he sought the meeting because there is a "lot of misinformation and half-truths" about energy drinks. Of Trypuc's data, Hahn said, she "hasn't done enough research" to warrant legislation.

Hahn added that Red Bull is safe and the company has been responsible by agreeing to label its ingredients and caffeine levels as part of an agreement with the county when it last considered a ban in 2010.

However, part of the agreement, according to officials, was that Red Bull would give the health department $50,000 to do an education program on energy drink use, but that never materialized because the company would not allow any information negative to its products.

Instead, Hahn acknowledged the money went to United Way, an organization for which he is a board member and former chief executive. He said it was used for a "nutrition and fitness" education program. Hahn also said the money was never part of the agreement with Legis. Lynne Nowick (R-St. James), sponsor of the original energy drink ban, something Nowick disputes.

Complicating the situation further, Hahn is married to Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who was not on the legislature two years ago when he first lobbied against the law. The Setauket-based lawmaker, one of the body's more progressive voices, said that because her husband represented Red Bull before she took office, she will recuse herself on all energy drink votes.

Burgos' firm also has been a heavy political donor, giving $10,000 to Steve Bellone's county executive campaign and $7,400 to Suffolk Democrats over the past six years.

Spencer (D-Centerport), a physician who is also a member of the health board, said he is "very much concerned" about energy drink abuse and how products are being marketed to the young, who are unaware of potential dangers. However, he also worries that critics will lash out about over-regulation.

Spencer also said he is not sure there are enough votes to pass a ban, though he personally favors barring the sale of drinks to those 14 and younger and perhaps as old as 17. However, he added he might be open to compromise, if the industry agrees to stop marketing to kids. He has also asked the Suffolk County Medical Society and its cardiology section to weigh in because he expects the industry to amass foes from convenience stores to local gas stations that sell the products.

"I expect them to come out with guns blazing," Spencer said. "It will be a difficult battle because some may fear political retribution."