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Suffolk Legis. William Spencer knocks sports drink marketing

Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer, center, testifies before

Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer, center, testifies before the U.S. Senate committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, examining issues including limiting the sale and marketing of energy drinks to minors. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON -- Suffolk County Legis. William Spencer criticized "deceptive marketing practices" aimed at children and teenagers by makers of caffeine energy drinks in testimony before a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday.

Those practices led Suffolk County to become the first municipality to ban the sale or distribution of energy drinks to anyone under 18 at county parks and beaches and to bar the mailing of free samples and coupons to minors, he told the Senate Commerce Committee in an afternoon hearing at the Russell Senate Office Building.

"This for me is about protecting our children," said Spencer (D-Centerport), a physician and sponsor of the Suffolk County law, saying as many as one in 100 children have heart defects that could be aggravated by free samples of energy drinks.

"What I am asking today is that if the products are labeled as not recommended for use by children, then we should not allow them to be marketed to children," he said.

Spencer testified at a hearing Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) used as a bully pulpit to press energy drink makers to stop aiming messages at children or using children in photos or social media to promote their products.

Blumenthal and Markey showed energy drink promotions on Facebook and in a magazine using photos of kids on skateboards and a 12-year-old motocross athlete.

But executives of Monster Beverage Corporation, Rockstar Inc. and Red Bull North America Inc. denied at the hearing that they market to teenagers or children. They said they focus on 18- to 35-year-olds.

"I would like to emphasize that the company does not market Monster to children, and has never done so," said Monster chief executive Rodney Sacks.

But Blumenthal said, "I find the denials of marketing to children difficult to accept. The fact and common sense show the marketing and pitches have been open and quite blatant."

He cited "Monster Army," an energy drink sports website for 13- to 21-year-olds.

Sacks denied it was marketing. He called it "an athletic development program."

Pressed by senators, the executives agreed they would make sure they do not market to children, but balked at agreeing to label their products as not being for anyone under age 16.

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