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Victory for Maryland Parents and Consumers: Energy Drink Ban Voted Down

A bill that would have banned the sale of energy drinks for minors in Maryland was recently voted down in committee almost unanimously. The bill was introduced after the death of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, which was reportedly linked to the consumption of energy drinks, and several news stories linking energy drinks to an increased number of hospitalizations fueled the panic over energy drinks potential hazards. However, Maryland lawmakers, to their credit, did not rush to legislate on a matter that would affect all Marylanders based on a few anecdotal cases.

While it’s understandable that parents would want lawmakers to do something to protect their children from potentially hazardous products, legislating based on anecdotal evidence isn’t the answer. In fact, a ban would likely do more harm than good. As Maryland Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Mount Rainier) told me over email, “There may be issues with energy drinks, but I agree that there are limits to how much can and should be done legislatively.”

On March 15, after hearing the concerns of citizens and business owners in Maryland, the House Economic Matters Committee rejected the bill 22-1. Despite the emotional testimony of the parents of the late Anais Fournier, lawmakers did not seem convinced that a ban was appropriate or that the scientific case against energy drinks is conclusive.

The bill’s penalties were excessive and unreasonable by any standard. The proposal—which defined "energy drinks" as beverages containing 71 milligrams or more of caffeine in a 12-ounce container as well as other ingredients like taurine, guarana, panax ginseng, inositol or L-carnitine—would have made selling energy drinks to minors a crime with the punishment ranging from $500 for the first offense to $2,000 for subsequent offenses, and up to $20,000 for providing discounted or free energy drinks to anyone under the age of 18. Minors themselves could be fined up to $100 if caught in possession of energy drinks.

Despite all the scary headlines, there is no actual evidence that the energy drinks are harmful when moderately consumed. As I noted recently in The Baltimore Sun, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted an investigation in 2012 and found no reason to take further action against the products. While this doesn’t mean they are perfectly safe in any quantity for every consumer in all circumstances, it means that the agency doesn’t see them as a threat to public health. And as noted in a subsequent letter to the Sun, the assertion that energy drinks are dangerous to the 10 percent of the population with undiagnosed heart conditions seems unlikely. Were that the case, we’d expect to see many more energy drink-related deaths given the huge increase in energy drink consumption in recent years.

Energy drinks, consumed in a great enough quantity, could pose potential health risk, but that is true for all consumable goods. The only way to protect children from the dangers of certain foods or beverages is for parents to give them guidelines about proper nutrition to help them make responsible consumption decisions now and in the future.