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Suffolk debates youth ban on energy drinks

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) Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Suffolk County lawmakers are raising concerns over expected legislation to ban the sale of energy drinks to young people, before proponents have even introduced a bill.

The legislature's health committee debated the issue at a lengthy meeting Thursday, a week after the board of health recommended prohibiting sale of the caffeinated beverages to people under 19.

Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) wants to restrict distribution of energy drinks, which the health board links to elevated heart rates, higher blood pressure and dizziness. Spencer, a doctor, said his challenge in crafting a bill -- which he hopes to introduce at Tuesday's legislative meeting -- is ensuring that the drinks are precisely defined by caffeine levels and supplements such as ginseng to not also impact coffee and sodas.

"We're going to need some guidance on that to have responsible legislation," Spencer told health board members who addressed the committee.

Two years ago, Legis. Lynne Nowick (R-St. James) pressed for an energy drink ban, but pulled back when the Red Bull brand agreed to fund an education program; lawmakers say the money was never provided. In reaction to the renewed push, beverage industry lobbyists again are insisting that their products are safe, and that they limit the amount of marketing to children.

Some lawmakers expressed concern about a ban that would include 18-year-olds who can legally smoke, vote and serve in the military. Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) suggested that health advocates should instead target parents for education campaigns.

"I'm concerned about government control over something we can't control," she said.

But Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said energy drink companies need better regulation. She noted that her 16-year-old son has received free product samples in the mail -- apparently because his local soccer club sold its roster to marketers.

"That should never have been done," Anker said.

Near the debate's end, the health board's leading advocate for a ban urged lawmakers to not be discouraged by what's likely to be a fierce battle with the beverage industry.

"They swoop in with their lobbyists and their money," said Tracy Trypuc. "What's more important is the health and safety of the children of Suffolk County."

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