Suffolk lawmaker revises energy drink bills

Suffolk County legislators are thinking about banning the

Suffolk County legislators are thinking about banning the sale of energy drinks to kids under 19. (Feb. 3, 2011) (Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin)

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A Suffolk County lawmaker is backing off his controversial proposal to stop the sale of energy drinks to anyone younger than 19, saying instead that he wants to make caffeine content -- not age -- the focus of any potential ban.

Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) met this week with representatives from local beverage distributors and the makers of the popular energy drink brands Monster Energy and Red Bull. While he still plans to introduce several energy drink-related bills early next month, including prohibiting the distribution of free product samples to minors, none may request the strict age ban that the county board of health recommends.

The board, which includes Spencer, unanimously voted in November to ask the legislature to ban the sale of the drinks to young people, citing potential health dangers including elevated heart rate, dizziness and even death.

Beverage industry lobbyists have consistently denied that energy drinks are dangerous, noting that many contain less caffeine than a cup of coffee. They successfully fought Suffolk's previous efforts at regulating the drinks in 2010.

Red Bull and Monster Energy representatives did not respond to requests for comment Friday. Spencer said his change in thinking was meant to specifically target "fringe" brands with unusually high levels of caffeine per fluid ounce.

Legislative support for a full ban based on age is no guarantee, as several of Spencer's fellow Democrats in the majority have expressed concerns.

"I'm shifting here to look more toward a caffeine cap, which would probably be a little more effective," Spencer said Friday. "I want to take the responsible players in the industry and partner with them, because I really think it's a lot of the fringe players that come in with these double- or triple-shot products."

Spencer said he's yet to define the caffeine content that would determine the products to be banned. Another of his proposals would require retailers to display signs with recommended daily caffeine intake.

The move away from an age-defined ban worries Tracy Trypuc, a registered nurse and board of health member who has been its leading proponent.

"I'm hoping the bill that gets laid on the table is the same one discussed with the board," she said. "After all, this is supposed to be about the health and safety of Suffolk County children."

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), who took part in the meetings with Spencer and energy drink representatives, said he can't support any ban that would include 18-year-olds, who can vote, smoke and join the military.

"The reality is that the major stimulant is the same stimulant in coffee," Calarco said. "So if we're going to deal with the problem, let's deal with it from a more global perspective, and that's by looking at caffeine."

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