No One Cards At Starbucks

In Maryland, as in other states, consumers need to show ID when buying alcohol or tobacco products. Energy drinks could be added to that list of "adult" products if bills before the General Assembly are passed. House bill 1273 and Senate bill 986 were filed to ostensibly protect the Free State's children from a potentially hazardous product. But not only will the bills fail to protect minors, they could backfire and cause more harm than good for both adults and children in Maryland.

The bills define "energy drink" as a beverage containing 71 milligrams or more of caffeine in a 12-ounce container (along with other ingredients such as taurine, guarana, panax ginseng, inositol or L-carnitine) and would criminalize their sale to those under the age of 18. Violations would bring fines up to $500 for the first offense and $2,000 for subsequent offenses. Those convicted of providing free or discounted energy drinks to minors would face fines of $5,000 to $20,000, and consumers under the age of 18 caught in possession of energy drinks would also be subject to fines, $50 for the first offense and up to $100 for following violations.

Given recent headlines about the supposed dangers of energy drinks, the desire to "do something" is understandable. But knee-jerk legislation based on anecdotal evidence and sensational news headlines is the far greater hazard.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in its 2012 investigation of energy drinks, found that the main sources of caffeine in American diets are still coffee, tea and soft drinks. The agency also found that the levels of caffeine consumption among both adults and adolescents were within safe levels and had remained relatively stable since 1999 — despite the increasing use of energy drinks. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics confirmed those findings, as energy drinks accounted for just 6 percent of children's caffeine consumption. Yet nobody is talking about carding teens when they walk into Starbucks.

While the FDA noted in its 2012 report that energy drinks were linked to 13 deaths, that doesn't mean the drinks caused or were even related to the patients' problems, only that a patient or a doctor reported that energy drinks were consumed around the time that person's health issue arose. The same goes for claims that energy drinks are leading to more emergency room visits.

Of course, it's possible that energy drink consumption may pose some risks. But even if all the worst case scenarios were genuine, they pale in comparison to the number of accidents and ER visits related to the misuse of other products. For example, grooming products reportedly caused twice as many injuries in 2011 as energy drinks, clothing was responsible for more than 300,000 trips to the ER, and furniture was correlated with more than 580,000 injury reports. But nobody is calling to ban Ikea. Over-the-counter medicines and bunk beds pose well-known hazards, but parents know to take appropriate steps to protect their children, without any need for a ban or age limits. Why should energy drinks be any different?

The Maryland bills will mean increased costs for convenience store owners, who will have to put up signs, train clerks to card consumers, and potentially pay thousands of dollars in fines for employee mistakes. It will also mean longer lines for customers.

It's true that energy drinks could be harmful if consumed in great enough quantities, but the same is true of virtually any other food or beverage. What children and teens need is instruction on how to evaluate the safety of various food choices and how to eat an overall healthy diet. It's up to parents and educators to help children make good decisions about what they eat and drink, not to make those decisions for them.

A ban until adulthood teaches children nothing other than once they turn 18, it's OK to drink as many energy drinks as they please. If they grow up in a world where every product is banned because it is not 100 percent safe in any way it could be consumed, they could well assume (as many adults do) that any product available for purchase must be safe for every person in any quantity, or the government would have banned it. Is this the best way to protect Maryland's children?