My son is 11 years old and, for a while now, has been going to the shops by himself when he has pocket money. Mostly, he returns with crisps or sweets but will occasionally bring an energy drink into the house.
He knows he shouldn’t – I’ve told him they aren’t suitable for children – but kids like to push their luck, even when they know they probably won’t get away with it.
Sometimes I’ll confiscate the drink, but sometimes I can’t face a row and will let him drink it. And at such times, while silently chastising myself for being a bad parent, I spare a thought for you lot – the suppliers and retailers who need to share the blame.
You sell brands that, while appealing to the touted core audience of young men, are also exciting to teenage lads and those soon to become teenagers. The big loves of my 11-year-old’s life are video games, rock music, motor sports, BMX and skateboarding, pretty much a shopping list for energy drink marketing.
I’ve overheard my son and his mates talking, and energy drinks have almost become a badge of honour. As I dare say chugging lager will be for them all in a few years.
The big difference is that he won’t be able to buy lager until he can prove he is 18, while there is nothing to stop him buying energy drinks. Yet both are unsuitable for children – in the case of energy drinks containing more than 150mg of caffeine per litre, it has to say so on pack.
And this is where I am torn between being a journalist for The Grocer and being a parent.
As a grocery industry journalist, I am a believer in free trade and in trusting the retailer and consumer to do the right thing; I don’t feel checkout confectionery bans are necessary, disagree with demonisation of super-strength beers, and don’t even get me started on the smoking ban in pubs (it still hurts, all these years on).
But, as a parent, I don’t want my son walking into a shop and buying a product that is labelled “not recommended for children”.
So, a year or so ago I welcomed the news that Morrisons had launched a trial ban on selling high-energy drinks to under-16s – and was disappointed to this week learn the trial had ended with no plans for a wider roll out.
I consider myself laid back, and if I am concerned about selling energy drinks to children it is likely only a matter of time before some serious campaigning is done to address the issue. Surely a proactive approach by the industry would be sensible.
There is plenty of uncertainty around the effect caffeine has on children, so perhaps there is more research to be done in this area, in identifying safe levels and in developing products suitable for kids while still retaining the appeal of the brand. If parents can be assured the products are safe for children after all, the issue goes away.
The alternative is tighter controls on the sale of high-caffeine drinks to children. And although Morrisons opted not to continue its trial, a voluntary ban or restriction would be better than statutory interference.
Whatever approach is taken, it’s unlikely to be a waste of energy.