As an elected official and local physician, I am deeply concerned about the significant risks posed by the use of stimulant drinks by our children. These products are often referred to as “energy drinks” but provide no energy, only stimulation. Mounting evidence proves that there can be long-term medical harm and even sudden death in certain circumstances by ingesting these highly-caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is not a source of energy but a stimulant. Stimulant drinks consumed by children in middle and high school and can contain up to 800 milligrams of caffeine per serving, the equivalent of eight cups of coffee.
In my capacity as the chairman of the Legislature’s Health Committee, I serve on the Board of Health which is charged with considering any matter pertaining to public health. The Board recently sent a letter to the Suffolk County Legislature imploring action to protect our children from the effects of caffeine toxicity and the negative effects of energy drinks. They believe the stimulants in these drinks clearly pose a risk to our children. In response to their concerns and the growing body of scientific evidence about the dangers of stimulant drinks, I have proposed a resolution to the NYS House of Delegates of the New York State Medical Society. This bill has the support of the Suffolk County Medical Society and recommends restricting the marketing and sale of “high-energy/stimulant drinks to children under the age of 19.” I am hopeful that this resolution will be approved and that physicians throughout the state will support restricting these products from children. But in the interim, I am addressing the issue locally in several ways.
First, after much research and meetings with physicians, representatives from the energy drink industry, concerned parents and school officials, I have introduced three resolutions that would affect Suffolk County residents. The first resolution would create an educational campaign directed at junior and senior high school students to make them aware of the potentially dangerous effects of caffeine toxicity from stimulant drinks. The next two resolutions would restrict the marketing and distribution of samples to minors in the County.
Next, my office is working to draft a maximum caffeine cap similar to that which Health Canada is pursuing. This would limit the concentration of caffeine in beverages sold in Suffolk County to protect against the most dangerously caffeinated products. To be clear, this cap would not impact soft drinks or coffee but would address the most dangerous ingredient in stimulant drinks which can be exacerbated by other ingredients in some of these products.
Finally, I realize that developing fair legislation and educating the public may not be enough to protect our children. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report from the Committee on Nutrition and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness that recommends that school districts prohibit energy drink use and sale of caffeinated products in schools. I have reached out to the Nassau/Suffolk School Boards Association and requested that they address this issue and encourage all Long Island school boards to regulate the sale and use of these products on school property and at school sponsored events. I have already discussed this with the six school districts in the 18th Legislative District. I am confident they will decide to protect students in their charge.
Our children are at risk and emergency room visits by people presenting with caffeine toxicity have increased. It is time Suffolk County addressed this very important issue and I am working very hard to do so in a fair, informed and practical way. The energy drink lobby is a very powerful lobby and would like to conduct business unfettered by local laws. In spite of that fact, I continue to work to fashion smart, productive and reasonable legislation to protect the lives of unsuspecting children in our County.
On March 5 at 2:30 p.m. at the General Meeting of the Legislature in Riverhead, members of the public can attend a hearing on these very important resolutions. Please contact my office if you would like more information about this issue.
Dr. William Spencer represents the 18th District in the Suffolk County Legislature.