As the sports and energy drinks category piled on sales of nearly £400m last year, according to The Grocer’s recent Top Products Survey, who’s to know how much of that came from under-16 consumers?

But the fact that Prime energy drink netted value sales of just under £22.5m alone, from virtually scratch, and that established brands Red Bull, Monster and Lucozade added a combined £244.3m on the back of soaring volumes running into millions of litres, suggests it’s not exactly been driven by the older generation.

Yet a study published in the Public Health Journal from researchers at Teesside University, claiming to be the most comprehensive of its kind, claims energy drink consumption among children has links to suicidal thoughts, psychological distress, and many other health symptoms. Once again, the spotlight is on energy drink safety, especially where sales to children are concerned. But the UK government’s inadequacies and contradictions on public health policies are also being highlighted.

It’s nearly six years since the government launched a consultation on plans to ban the sale of energy drinks to under-16s.

This preceded the proposed ban on “junk food” ads and a clampdown on HFSS in-store promotions. It was before a backlash against so-called “nanny state” policies within the Conservative Party that led to the energy drinks ban going the same way as so many other policies that are now gathering dust in the vaults in Whitehall.

The energy drinks ban always appeared to be overdue, considering all the major UK supermarkets had already introduced voluntary bans on sales of the products to under-16s, leaving, not for the first time, an uneven playing field between the supermarket retail and out-of-home and convenience sectors.

But at least previously there were genuine grounds to dispute the evidence behind a ban.

Will under-16s energy drinks sales be banned?  

In 2018, both the independent Committee on Toxicity and the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee found there was limited evidence of harm, with MPs hearing energy drinks posed little more threat to kids than a cup of tea.

This week’s research from Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, however, found energy drink consumption, especially among boys, was associated with increased risky behaviours such as substance use, violence and unsafe sex.

It also links consumption of the drinks with an increased risk of poor academic performance, sleep problems, and unhealthy dietary habits.

The study once again highlights the vacuum that has been allowed to develop in public health by the Department of Health & Social Care, which has had its every move blunted by hawks within government.

Yet with energy drinks it’s as if it faced an uproar from angry retailers with its proposed ban.

Back in 2018, when the consultation came out, the BRC said outlawing the sale of energy drinks to kids would bring legislation into line with all the major retailers, who have already voluntarily banned sales of the drinks to under-16s.

Speaking this week, BSDA director general Gavin Partington pointed to its code dating back to 2010, which includes “stringent” restrictions against marketing energy drinks to under-16s.

Yet the DHSC told the BBC: “We consulted on a proposal to end the sale of energy drinks to children under 16 in England and will set out our full response in due course.”

Energy drink ban welcomed by most

Forget the fact it has had six years to sort out its policy. Its consultation showed 93% of respondents were in favour of a ban, including all the major supermarkets. This is one of the reasons why – to many – it’s a mystery why the Health Outcomes Green Paper published in 2019 never saw the light of day.

For those familiar with the government’s track record it is no mystery, however.

It has built up a history littered with such policy u-turns, losing it all credibility on public health and the chances of it introducing a well thought-out energy drinks ban before the next general election are frankly zero. This is especially true when considering how complicated a ban would be in practice, given the huge crossover of different soft drinks categories.

The bigger question now is will a ban on energy drinks sales to youngsters form part of Labour’s incoming public health policy? Last week, Keir Starmer launched its manifesto, pledging a new Child Health Action Plan, including a promise to make good on the 9pm junk food watershed, also shelved by ministers. Starmer also announced other proposals, including introducing kids’ breakfast clubs for all primary schoolchildren.

Such measures are hardly groundbreaking or radical, but Labour doesn’t have to do very much to outshine the current government.

As for the DHSC, it’s not even clear if its latest plans on public health will even see the light of day, before voters go to the polls.

As far back as September, The Grocer revealed the department, and the government’s new Food Data Transparency Partnership, were working on a new voluntary reporting system on health, This was being drawn up with the backing of a food industry working group reporting to the DHSC.

But is it really going to happen, or is it another false dawn to be added to the list of those projects to be published “in due course”, which is Whitehall speak for ‘not in a month of Sundays’?