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Suffolk seeks to ban energy drinks for those under 19

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

Suffolk County's Board of Health Wednesday unanimously urged county lawmakers to ban the sale of energy drinks to people younger than 19, citing potential health dangers including elevated heart rates and higher blood pressure, dizziness and possible death.

The board voted 6-0 after spending more than an hour hashing out details of a draft letter. The health commissioner, Dr. James Tomarken, will incorporate changes and send the letter to Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) within a week.

The letter calls for a similar federal ban and it will be sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), advocates of tougher energy drink rules.

In 2010, county Legis. Lynne Nowick (R-St. James) pressed for a similar ban. But she pulled back her bill when energy drink maker Red Bull agreed to change labeling and give the county $50,000 for an education program. However, that money never came through because the company would not permit anything negative to be included about energy drinks, county health officials said.

"This is our second chance at this," said Tracy Trypuc, a health board member and a registered nurse, "We're here to try to protect our children and we have to keep their best interests at heart."

Christopher Gindlesperger, senior director of public affairs for the American Beverage Association, said an energy drink ban is unnecessary because the products are safe. He said association members, including Red Bull, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, do not market to children younger than 12 and already voluntarily list caffeine content as well as the warning "Not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine."

"The industry recognizes the public discussion going on," and wants to play a "positive role" in those discussions, Gindlesperger said.

Christopher Hahn, a lobbyist for Red Bull, attended but did not speak. He and Red Bull did not return calls for comment.

The board in its letter recommended that drinks label all of the ingredients and their components, and that labeling be put on the front of containers and have easily distinguishable lettering in a color that stands out.

The board also urged that lawmakers consider regulating the placement of drinks in commercial establishments, requiring warning signs at the point of sale and a ban on distribution of samples to those younger than 19. They also urged an education program aimed at schools and parents to warn them of the alleged health risks associated with energy drinks.The board's action came after the FDA this month said it was reviewing whether new labeling for energy drinks is required, and Durbin and Blumenthal pressed for new limits on caffeine in drinks. Neither senator returned calls for comment.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has subpoenaed large energy drink makers about their marketing and whether they are misleading consumers about caffeine levels. The FDA also is looking into claims that 5-Hour Energy was tied to 13 deaths in a four-year period.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says, "energy drinks are not appropriate for children and adolescents." Critics say the drinks may affect sleep, slow the flow of blood through coronary arteries and trigger arrhythmias.

Gindlesperger said the amount of caffeine in energy drinks is about half that in coffee drink brands sold by companies such as Starbucks. He warned that an energy drink ban could create a "slippery slope" that might require similar regulation of such products.

Health board member J. Ronald Gaudreault raised the concern that undisclosed proprietary formulas used in drinks "can mask" the true level of caffeine. A study in the journal Pediatrics found thatsome containers of energy drinks can total as much as 500 mg, far beyond the 70 mg allowed in a 12-ounce can of soda. "It's something an intelligent consumer needs to know," Gaudreault said.

Others expressed concern that ingredients like guarana, taurine and ginseng, when combined with caffeine, can boost the effect of stimulants to unsafe levels.

Board member William Spencer, a Democratic county lawmaker from Huntington, cautioned that the battle to enact legislation may be difficult because small businesses that sell the drinks are "hyper-resistant" to regulation, and some proposals might have to be jettisoned to get enough votes for legislative approval.

"This is not an all-or-nothing thing -- we are trying to give you a lot of flexibility," board member Dr. Benjamin Luft said. But he added, "Our feeling is that a ban would be the best definitive cure for the issue."

Lindsay said he supports a ban but that passage is not assured: "It's not a slam dunk, but I think it has a decent chance, especially since Red Bull did not follow through on its agreement," referring to the educational funding. He also said he'd like Nowick to introduce a revised bill since she was the original sponsor.

Nowick said she still backs a ban and will vote for it, but is undecided about sponsoring a new ban proposal given her earlier agreement with Red Bull. "That issue is still on the table," she said.

She also said she strongly favors requiring signs in stores detailing the risk of energy drinks for all age groups. "When you see a sign, it grabs the eye and hits you in the face," she said.

The Nassau Legislature's Presiding Officer Normal Gonsalves of East Meadow could not be reached, but members of her staff said they did not know of any proposed legislation on the issue.

Maryellen Laurain, spokeswoman for the Nassau County Department of Health, said the department, is "evaluating the sale of energy drinks to minors."

With Sid Cassese

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