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Energy drinks: the wrong problem

WATERLOO (CUP) — On Oct. 6, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that the federal government would be introducing a cap of 180 milligrams of caffeine in energy drinks. Her argument in favour of the change was that it would be “especially helpful to the parents of teenagers who regularly consume energy drinks.”

Ingesting large amounts of caffeine is not good for anyone, regardless of their age. However, as it stands now, energy drinks sold in Canada are well below Health Canada’s maximum daily recommended dosage for healthy adults of 400 milligrams. By its own admission, Health Canada “has not developed definitive advice for adolescents 13-and-older because of insufficient data.” Health Canada also concedes “older and heavier-weight adolescents may be able to consume adult doses of caffeine without suffering adverse effects.” Given this wishy-washy stance, I don’t see a reason to ban some of the more caffeinated varieties of energy drinks.

The energy drinks I typically drink cost – at least at convenience stores – as much as $3. The amount of caffeine in most energy drinks is comparable to the caffeine in a Tim Hortons medium coffee. Anyone can pay for an expensive energy drink, or if they’re on a budget just get a coffee at Tim Hortons. The fact that Tim Hortons recently announced it would be experimenting with even larger coffee cup sizes in Ontario only illustrates how teens who want high amounts of caffeine will still be able to get it.

But hey, the minister never said this was about teens’ ability to buy coffee. Nor is she concerned about supporting the free market, individual responsibility, or personal choice. This is all about protecting teens who can afford to buy these expensive drinks regularly and helping parents who haven’t educated their kids on the dangers of ingesting too much caffeine.

There are clearly not any more pressing issues for teens that can be addressed by the federal government. Forget about a 2009 study of about 21,000 teens in the Netherlands that found that obese boys and girls were three to four times more likely to report suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months and four to seven times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt. Who needs a federal health minister and federally paid health experts to focus on issues like teenage obesity and teens’ mental health when they can instead focus on restricting a bunch of hyper teenagers?

This restriction makes me wonder about the next minor health scare the Harper government will fall for. Can we expect high-energy snack bars and sugary breakfast cereals to be next on their hit list? Better yet, let’s regulate the amount of candy people can give to kids on Halloween. Such things may seem far-fetched, but they demonstrate an important point. There is a clear distinction between informing consumers about the health hazards of a product and outright restricting everyone’s access to it without due cause. Educating youth and parents about the risks of caffeine is the more prudent means of addressing this minor health concern. Teens need to learn to drink caffeinated drinks responsibly, and the government needs to learn to govern with commensurate common sense.

Keith Marshall
The Cord (Wilfrid Laurier University)

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