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Heated debate over Suffolk 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

Beverage industry lobbyists descended on Suffolk County in force this week seeking to quash two bills aimed at making it more difficult for teenagers to obtain energy drinks.

At a nearly four-hour hearing Tuesday, legislators tangled with American Beverage Association-hired doctors, lawyers and scientists who argued strenuously against bans on distributing products such as Red Bull and Monster at county parks and beaches, and providing free samples to minors.

The representatives used props, charts and studies to repeatedly hammer home the points that energy drinks often contain less caffeine than coffee servings of the same size, and that their numerous added ingredients -- including ginseng, guarana and taurine -- do not boost caffeine effects to dangerous levels, as health advocates maintain.

"The data simply does not support the need to regulate," said Joel Geerling, a neurologist paid by the association.

Lawmakers objected heatedly when Geerling suggested that if the county were to "over-regulate mild, safe stimulants, like caffeine," children may turn to illicit or prescription drugs.

"I hope you're not equating a reason you'd want to have a Red Bull is so you don't take Ritalin," said Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "That is such a leap."

Geerling said he didn't mean that. Horsley replied: "It sounded like that to me."

Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a physician, said he filed the new measures as a compromise after he met significant resistance to a proposal to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors. Some health advocates continue to back that option, citing research that the beverages can cause elevated heart rates, higher blood pressure, dizziness and even death. The industry strongly disputes the studies.

"These are not benign products and shouldn't be treated as such," said Lori Benincasa, Suffolk health education director.

Jim McGreevy, the beverage association's senior vice president for government affairs, acknowledged that labels on some products warn that they aren't recommended for young children. But he insisted that no credible research suggests it is dangerous for a teen to consume an energy drink.

"It doesn't do anything," he said of why he opposes the county's proposals. "There's no policy underpinning for it."

Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) replied: "Your industry needs to come to terms with the fact that, just like smoking in the '50s, just like sugars in the '80s, there are harmful effects. Your industry needs to understand, unless you're willing to compromise, the absurdity of your position is going to rise to the top."

The energy drink measures will be considered by legislative committees next week. If approved, the full legislature could vote on them as soon as March 19.

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