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Are adults responsible enough to choose whether or not to consume energy drinks? Chicago Alderman Edward M. Burke doesn’t seem to think so. He introduced a proposal recently to prohibit sales of highly caffeinated energy drinks to anyone in Chicago, regardless of their age. Lawmakers in Chicago and elsewhere have sought similar bans only for minors and young adults. Burke’s proposal shocked many and has some asking, who has the right to tell adults what they can or can’t drink?
Burke’s ban proposal, perhaps an exercise in one-upmanship, follows a similar idea floated by Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas last month to ban energy drink sales to those under age 21. Cardenas called his proposal a conversation starter intended to bring attention to the alleged dangers posed by energy drinks. Burke seems to be engaging in that conversation, but taking it to an undesirable conclusion.
In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released data on adverse event reports since 2004 for three of the most popular energy drinks on the market. The reports, filed by consumers or their doctors, detail some serious and sometimes life-threatening health problems, including convulsions, heart attacks, and death after consuming energy drinks. Some of the reports are of mild events like sneezing, throat irritation, and crying. What none of these reports show is evidence linking any of the users’ health problems to the consumption of energy drinks. According to the FDA’s own statement, the reports do not prove  that the drinks were the cause of or even related to the health events.
Yet, that didn’t stop some Chicago Aldermen from proposing knee-jerk bans in the city, nor did it stop Senator Dick Durbin  (D-Ill.) from calling for a ban on the sale of energy drinks nationwide. While these lawmakers may believe the drinks are harmful, there is no real evidence to support their belief.
Even if there were some connection between energy drinks and health problems, one one would expect to see many more than the 145 adverse events reported to the FDA, 18 of which were deaths (one of those was a suicide), considering the millions of cans sold in the U.S. every year.
Moreover, while there have been recent reports  of a spike in energy drink-related hospitalizations, those numbers are more likely a result of increasing media attention and the likelihood of people consuming energy drinks at the time of their hospitalization being counted toward the total. The increasing popularity of mixing energy drinks with alcohol is bound to lead to a greater number of hospitalizations in which energy drink consumption is involved, regardless of the drinks’ inherent qualities or actual role in the patient’s hospitalization. Meanwhile, reports about the supposed dangers of energy drinks may prompt patients and doctors to report their use more than in previous years.
Even if there were a genuine increase in the number of hospitalizations related to energy drink consumption, it does not demonstrate the drinks’ inherent dangerousness, given that the number of energy-drink related hospitalizations is small in comparison to the millions of drinks sold in the U.S. every year.
As noted, Alderman Cardenas has said that his proposal was intended to inspire a “conversation” over the regulation of energy drinks. While we can’t know what the motivations of these lawmakers are, (perhaps they are interested in eliciting funds from drink makers ) it’s clear that they will not be satisfied with a calm and fact-based discussion of the issue.
Whatever the motives of the bureaucrats, lawmakers, and self-styled “public health” advocates who call to ban or restrict certain products, their proposals are bad policy in every context. In effect, they are saying that adults are not smart or responsible enough to make their own decisions over whether and how to consume certain products. Any product can be dangerous depending on each individual’s health status and how much they consume. Ultimately, it should be up to each individual person to determine what is best for him or herself. If energy drinks pose any danger to health, allowing government officials to make our choices for us is a far greater threat to liberty.