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One Death Isn't Reason Enough to Ban Energy Drinks

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced that it is launching an investigation into four deaths they believe to be related to consumption of Monster energy drinks. A Maryland couple is suing the beverages maker after their 14-year-old daughter, Anais Fournier, died of a heart attack after consuming two 24-ounce Monster beverages over a 24-hour period.

Predictably, some are calling for a ban on the sale of energy drinks to minors in the United States. There have been a total of five deaths in the U.S. linked to consumption of Monster energy drinks, 13 to the hyper-caffeinated 5 Hour Energy shots, and reports of three Canadian deaths linked to energy drink consumption.

However, there is little reason to believe that such a regulatory crackdown on energy drinks would bring meaningful public health benefits. For starters, data from the Mayo Clinic shows that a 24-ounce can of Monster actually has less caffeine than a 16-ounce Starbucks coffee. Restricting access to energy drinks therefore cannot possibly prevent people from consuming dangerous amounts of caffeine if they choose to. Ms. Fournier had an underlying heart condition that may well have been a factor in her death. It is almost certain that this was the case in all of the energy drink-related deaths. Hundreds of millions of people consume caffeine on a daily basis with impunity. While the above cases are deeply unfortunate, a legal crackdown on energy drinks would be a regulatory overreaction to a series of extremely unusual events.

Highly publicized tragedies sometimes call attention to important health concerns, but it is very easy for advocacy groups and legislators to overreact and push through ill-considered legislation as a result. There is reason to suspect that this is precisely what will happen in the case of energy drinks. Indeed, in Canada, the Harper government has already imposed caffeine limits on energy drinks, which rendered certain products on the market illegal. Like the recent ban on large sodas in New York City, these types of well-intentioned regulations will do little more than irritate consumers.

No matter what regulations are enacted, some people will find a way engage in dangerous behaviours that put their health at risk. A small number of people will die as a result of these decisions. Regulating access to generally harmless products like energy drinks in reaction to a specific tragedy will do nothing to change these realities. As such restrictions pile up over the years and decades they unnecessarily restrict consumer choice and gradually make our society less free, while producing few if any public health benefits.

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Attempts to protect people from themselves usually fail. People are very good at finding ways to disappoint social engineers. Some people will eat too much fast food; some people will drink too much; others will have unprotected sex. There is no way to prevent this from happening in a liberal democratic society. There are things that can be done to dissuade people -- public education, peer pressure, family support -- but it is extremely difficult to significantly change individual behaviour without unpalatable restrictions on personal decisions. Moreover, regulations can unintentionally harm the very people they are supposed to help.

Consider a recent study on the effects of a dramatic increase in cigarette taxes by the New York State government. While the state has seen a larger decrease in smoking rates than other states -- likely due in part to other factors -- low income smokers now spend a staggering 25 per cent of their income on cigarettes. It is hard to argue that these people are any better off. Similarly, the state banned Four Loko, a caffeinated malt liquor beverage popular with young people. However, there is nothing preventing them from buying a bottle of vodka and a case of Red Bull, or mixing Bailey's with coffee. Unless either caffeine or alcohol is banned altogether, people will find a way to mix the two.

Debates about potentially harmful substances are always dominated by the potential impact on children. In fairness, children probably shouldn't drink large amounts of caffeine. And that's why their parents tend not to let them. Granted, few parents monitor their kids around the clock. So some kids will certainly be able to get their hands on caffeinated drinks without parental permission. However, there is no evidence that this has become a problem that requires legislative action. To put it crudely, one child dying from caffeine toxicity is not an epidemic. By contrast, roughly 700 children drown annually in the United States, mostly in swimming pools. There is obviously room to improve pool safety, and possibly a need for more parental supervision around swimming pools. But no one would want to live in a country where kids aren't allowed near swimming pools. This analogy raises another point: even if the sale of energy drinks to minors is banned, they'll still be able to find them in the fridge if left unsupervised.

One might argue that even if we can't entirely prevent kids from purchasing energy drinks, we ought to at least try. That is a fair argument. However, there is no evidence as of yet that this is even a widespread problem. It isn't illegal for a 15-year-old to grab a double-double at Tim Hortons. Yet no one is calling for a crackdown on coffee shops.

The real take away from this story is that despite the fact that we live at the safest time in human history, risk cannot be eliminated entirely. Sadly, some people will die from consuming substances that millions of people regularly consume. There are times when social ills are so pervasive that collective action may be required. But there is no epidemic of caffeine related deaths to justify new legislation.