'I was addicted to energy drinks' - Impact laid bare as government proposes ban on sale to children
"I will never have an energy drink again."
Those were the words of a Norwich woman whose addiction to energy drinks saw her down up to six cans a day and led to her having two seizures and losing her driving licence.
It comes as the government plans to ban the sale of energy drinks to children in England.
Youngsters in the UK reportedly consume more of the high-caffeine, sugar-loaded drinks than other children in Europe and the habit is harming their health and education, ministers fear.
Amber Clarke, 22, from Norwich was addicted to the drinks and it resulted in her having two seizures and having her driving licence taken away.
Miss Clarke, who works on Norwich market said she started drinking cheap energy drinks costing just 35p when she was just a teenager, before moving on to Red Bull.
She said: “I was having four or five cans a day but then in January I had a seizure from having too many.”
Miss Clarke, who was in Blackpool with family, was rushed to hospital where they carried out tests for epilepsy but found nothing.
“I had six cans that day,” she said. “I used to get a high from them but in the end I was just so used to them it was just natural to drink them, but they’re so bad for you. It was like how people get addicted to smoking, I was addicted to energy drinks.”
After her first seizure Miss Clarke did not give the drinks up, but when she had another at work in June she kicked the habit.
“Now I don’t think I’ll ever have one again,” she said. “If I see anyone with one now I tell them they are so bad.”
Miss Clarke welcomed the government looking into banning the sale of the drinks to children, as she said it might have stopped her picking up the habit in the first place.
Some schools in the county have already banned the drinks, including Inspiration Trust schools Cromer Academy, East Point Academy, Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, Hewett Academy and Hethersett Academy.
Inspiration Trust spokesman James Goffin said: “We encourage pupils to have a healthy diet, both in lessons and through the meals we serve in school. We have found that energy drinks can cause swings in behaviour that negatively affect pupils’ behaviour and concentration.
“It is much better for children to get a good night’s sleep and follow their body’s natural cycle, and parents have an important role to play in ensuring that happens. Energy drinks are one part of the issue, but we also need to ensure children exercise, have restful evenings, and aren’t staying up late gaming or on social media so they come to school fresh in the morning.”
At some of the county’s schools, teachers said children turned up with a can of energy drink for their breakfast.
The situation was one recognised by Norfolk County Council’s director of public health, Dr Louise Smith.
Dr Smith said: “A lot of teachers say that, that the boys buy them for breakfast and we have evidence that leads to hyperactivity and it affects learning.”
Before it was taken over by the Inspiration Trust in 2015, the then Hewett School banned the drinks in 2010.
Headteacher at the time Tom Samain said: “They contain the equivalent stimulant of having 15 cappuccino coffees. Our students are lively enough anyway without extra stimulation.”
Dr Smith welcomed the ban and said it was much more likely the drinks were consumed by teenage boys, rather than girls.
She added: “We know they do have an effect on children, that they can headaches, problems with sleeping, hyperactivity and they are most likely to be drunk by boys, teenagers, rather than girls and they are more often drunk by children who are mostly sedentary.”
Public Health was predominately concerned about the amount of sugar and caffeine in the drinks.
Dr Smith said some of the drinks contained the same amount of caffeine as an espresso, and youngsters were often attracted to the drinks by their branding.
“We would not give an espresso coffee to a child,” she said.
Nutritionist Caroline Blackmore, who runs Suffolk-based Caroline Blackmore Nutrition, agreed the branding boosted sales and that the drinks should be banned for under 16s.
She said: “They are marketed as functional beverages and look particularly appealing to adolescents. Although caffeine levels under 400 millilitres a day are considered safe amongst adults, I don’t think there has been any study conducted on children to access tolerable levels.
“That mixed with high sugar levels - in one 500ml can of Monster, there are 55g of sugar - resulted in the UK’s largest teaching union describing energy drinks as ‘readily available legal highs’.
“I often see children downing a can of energy drink on their way to school.
“They offer of course no nutritional value at all, despite being marketed as containing a source of vitamins. A bowl of porridge with fruit and nuts would be a much better option.
“The initial rise in blood pressure and heart rate after drinking an energy drink may make the person feel more alert for the short term but this will be followed by the sugar crash after about an hour and as caffeine can stay in your blood stream for 12 hours after being drunk, then this could be contributing to your child not sleeping. And so the cycle begins.
“An occasional can as an adult is fine. However for children there are much better options that are nutritionally superior then a can of sweetened caffeine laden water.”
However, not everyone supported the move.
Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs said: “It is not clear what problem the government is trying to tackle with this consultation. If the issue is the sugar in these drinks, then why isn’t the government proposing a ban on the sale of sugary drinks to people under the age of 18? If the issue is caffeine then why isn’t the government proposing a sale on coffee to people under the age of 18?
“Banning 17 year olds from buying lemonade or coffee would strike most reasonable people as crazy, so what is so special about energy drinks? The amount of caffeine in these drinks is less than would be found in a standard cup of coffee. While there might be health or behavioural problems associated with very young children consuming caffeine, criminalising the sale to 16 and 17 year olds is unnecessary and draconian.
“Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has recently made an issue of energy drinks and it seems that the government is once again dancing to his tune. The prime minister’s claim that energy drinks are cheaper than other soft drinks shows how little she knows about these products.
“This is proving to be a government that bans first and asks questions later.”
Restrictions already in place
Even though some supermarkets had already implemented restrictions, that was voluntary, and the new government restrictions would mean a legal ban on the sale of the drinks to either under 16s or under 18s.
The restrictions will apply to drinks with more than 150mg of caffeine per litre, like popular brands Red Bull, Monster and Relentless.
A government source was adamant the ban would come into force, saying: “It’s a question of how, not whether, we do it.”
The issue has come under scrutiny recently owing to a booming energy drinks market, high-profile calls from campaigners and figures like TV chef Jamie Oliver, and the low cost of some types compared with general soft drinks. Four cans of generic 250ml energy drink can be bought for as little as £1, for example.
More than two-thirds of 10-17 year-olds and a quarter of six to nine year olds consume energy drinks.
What you said...
Online this newspaper’s readers reacted to the news.
Helen Ward said: “It’s a step in the right direction but that doesn’t stop parents or others buying it for under 16 year olds.
“I’ve witnessed it myself; staff in a well named shop refuse to sell child the energy drink, child goes and tells mum, mum buys the drink instead. Staff are powerless.”
Sue Marriott said: “They shouldn’t be allowed to drink (or eat) anything with taurine or loads of E numbers. Too many hyper kids now due to poor diet.”
While Anne Wyer added: “Hate the stuff. Caused so many problems. Should be abolished.”
But Helen Carlisle branded the move as the country becoming a “nanny nation”.
And Laura Smith said: “It won’t make a difference, you’ll still have some parents willing to buy them for their kids to shut them up, and those that don’t will just get the older kids in the group to buy them along with their fags and booze.”