Do the forces of political activism have energy drinks in their sights? And could independents benefit by developing voluntary sales policies?
John McNee investigates.
HOW should shops handle sales of energy drinks, particularly sales to children? The products, which have shown good growth and are strong performers in c-stores, have been called into question by health activists. One issue is the effect of caffeine, taurine or other stimulants on youngsters – who have lower body mass than most adults and who, in many cases, have not had the long exposure to caffeine that is typical for many adults. Another is the sugar content of energy drinks, which opponents say contributes to health problems.
The soft drinks industry has responded to concerns, consumption of high caffeine content energy drinks by under-16s is not recommended and energy drinks packaging often makes that clear.
However, it’s not against the law for youngsters to drink the products. Similarly it’s not against the law for shops to sell the lines to under-16s, though some trade bodies recommend a 16-and-over marketing policy and some retailers operate careful sales policies in their own shops.
But certain activists are arguing loudly for stiffer regulation of the drinks. In February, pressure group Action on Sugar called on the government to set limits on added sugars in energy drinks and ban their sale to children under 16.
The group’s chairman, Graham MacGregor, said: “Children are being deceived into drinking large cans of this stuff, thinking they are going to improve their performance at school, during sports, or even on a night out.
“In reality all they are doing is increasing their risk of developing obesity or type 2 diabetes which will have lifelong implications on their health.”
Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, described energy drinks as “the wild west of the soft drinks industry” and called for a sugary-drinks duty – a health tax on soft drinks.
But British Soft Drinks Association director general Gavin Partington argued back, saying: “The vast majority of caffeine intake by children comes from other sources including tea and coffee. The latest review by the European Food Safety Authority indicates that caffeine from energy drinks is negligible in children and less than 11% in adolescents.”
He added: “Since 2010 the British Soft Drinks Association has operated a code of practice which says that high-caffeine-content soft drinks are not recommended for children, and specifies that this information should be clearly stated on the label of such drinks. The BSDA code of practice also states that high-caffeine-content drinks should not be promoted or marketed to those under 16.”
While marketing to youngsters might not be recommended, there’s anecdotal evidence, from schools for example, that energy drinks are purchased and consumed by children.
One Scottish-based campaign is now trying to gather support from retailers to establish voluntary no-sale-to-children policies. It’s especially keen to get independents on board, partly because the supermarkets have given it the brush-off.
RRED (Responsible Retailing of Energy Drinks) was launched in 2013 by Edinburgh Councillor Norma Austin Hart.
“I was at a meeting at a local high school where there was quite an agitated discussion about the effect energy drinks had on the children, especially at lunchtime, and the problems it presented the teachers in the afternoon,” she told Scottish Grocer.
“One of the parents told me they thought that if it says ‘not recommended for children’ on the can, then surely shops shouldn’t sell them to children.
“I then did a survey of all the shops in my ward and found that none of the independents or any of the supermarkets had a policy.
“I wrote to the chief executives of four of the big supermarkets and asked them to adopt a voluntary code of good practice to refuse to sell energy drinks to under-16 year-olds. They all said no. Once that happened I realised I had a bit of a challenge on my hands.”
She decided to launch a campaign to gain the support of smaller retailers and created the RRED pledge.
By signing up, store owners and managers agree to:
• Support staff with the authority not to sell energy drinks to unaccompanied children who appear under 16 years old
and, where appropriate:
• Place advisory notices warning that energy drinks are not recommended for children (in shop and online)
• Have a red light alert to check age at self-service checkouts
• Place energy drinks on shelves positioned above child height
• Work with local schools to promote healthy lifestyle choices for children
“In the absence of legislation all we can do is ask for the voluntary participation of shops,” said councillor Austin Hart.
“It looks as though the big supermarkets are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into this so I believe change will be led by the independents.”
The current list of RRED retailers already includes a number of independents such as the winners of Scottish Grocer’s Social Responsibility Award for 2015, Dennis and Linda Williams, who signed up in February. Energy drinks sell well at their Premier store in Oxgangs, Edinburgh, but for the last few years they had operated their own policy not to sell to under-12s.
“Norma’s campaign fit exactly with the feelings we already had about it and it’s something we would really like to see gain a bit of momentum,” said Linda.
“We’d like to see a voluntary code in our sector because clearly the supermarkets are not remotely interested in it. We feel it’s a point of difference where local, responsible retailers can show they are going the extra mile to protect their communities.”
All seven Margiotta stores across Edinburgh are also taking part in the campaign.
“We just became aware, like many people, that this was not a healthy thing for kids,” said the company’s founder, Franco Margiotta.
“In fairness, with where our stores are positioned, children weren’t really buying them and we didn’t see it as so much of a problem. But eventually we decided to make a company-wide policy in each of our stores not to sell to under-16s. RRED approached us and we were happy to sign up.”
Long-term, the RRED campaign is lobbying for legislation, but the aim for now is to get as many small retailers on board as possible.
Mo Razzaq, of Mo’s Premier, Blantyre, has refused to sell to under-16s for the last seven years, since customers raised concerns. He told Scottish Grocer he approved of the RRED campaign and would definitely consider signing up.
“We tried to get the other stores in our area to agree to a policy, but they refused, saying it wasn’t illegal so they didn’t see the point of doing something like that voluntarily,” he said.
“Things like this ram home the perception that a lot of retailers are more concerned about the money than about their customers’ health.
“At our Premier shop we’ve proved to our customers that we’re not just there for the business. We want to be responsible as well. But it’s not even about responsible retailing. It’s common sense.”
The Scottish Grocers’ Federation has agreed to raise awareness of the RRED campaign among its members, most of whom are said to already treat the products as being age-restricted.
“In our view engaging with the RRED campaign allows them to highlight this and show their commitment to responsible retailing,” said policy and public affairs manager John Lee.
“The Federation itself has not signed up to the campaign, primarily because it should always be up to individual retailers about whether or not they want to participate.”
Unlike Councillor Austin Hart, the SGF is not calling for legislation, but accepts there is a “strong possibility” that if things continue as they are it will eventually be brought in.
“There is every chance that any legislation will be badly thought-out and simply add to the burden of compliance and the cost of doing business for retailers,” said Lee.
“Anything we can do now to be proactive on this issue may help to reduce the risk of legislation.”
For more information on RRED, retailers can visit www.rredcampaign.org.uk