What if... the EU banned energy drink sales to under 18s

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Consumer groups have called for a pan-EU ban on energy sales to under 18s following bans in Lithuania and Latvia. © iStock.com / mearman
Consumer groups have called for a pan-EU ban on energy sales to under 18s following bans in Lithuania and Latvia. © iStock.com / mearman
An EU-wide ban on selling energy drinks to under 18s would see volume sales fall by over 70 million litres, if the impact of similar legislation in Lithuania is anything to go by. The low-priced end of the market would be hit hardest, with standard and premium ranges remaining relatively unscathed. 

Euromonitor data shows that in 2015 off-trade volume sales fell by 8% in Lithuania. In 2014, it became the first European country to ban energy drink sales to under 18s. The brands can no longer sponsor events or advertise in locations frequented by under 18s, such as schools, cinemas and sporting events. 

This summer, Latvia is expected to follow suit​, having drafted new legislation that will require retailers to check the age of anyone wanting to buy energy drinks. There will also be bans on stocking the caffeinated drinks at schools and colleges. 

Following Lithuania’s ban, low-cost energy drinks witnessed a “dramatic drop in sales”​ given they were mainly consumed by youngsters, Euromonitor International told us. Off-trade volume sales - referring to sales made in shops not bars, for example - fell by 8% in 2015. 

Campaigners are likely to seize on the findings to demonstrate legislation is doing what it says on the tin – reducing energy drink consumption among under 18s. Foodwatch, for one, has been pushing an EU-wide ban. 

In 2015, volume sales of sports drinks across the EU were 891 million litres. An 8% fall equates to 71 million litres. In a category where volume sales have been falling year-on-year since 2012, a pan-EU ban on selling the drinks to a core demographic could be extremely damaging. 

Legally dubious?

One expert on European law suggests the countries enforcing bans may be on “legally dubious ground”​, however.

“It is unlawful under EU law to impose a restriction on trade,” ​said Dominic Watkins, partner at law firm DWF.  

One of the exclusions for this is on grounds of health or safety, he added. But in the case of energy drinks, the EU has previously decided that it is acceptable to sell high caffeine products provided they contain a warning, including not recommended for children, on pack.  

Not for kids 

Industry body Energy Drinks Europe (EDE) has maintained that energy drinks are not intended for children and that the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulations suffice. 

In a statement, secretary general Andreas Kadi, also highlighted the findings of a study​ by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2013 suggesting the main sources of caffeine for children and adolescents is coffee, tea, soft drinks and cocoa beverages. 

However, campaigners will point to the same research that also found the age group most likely to consume energy drinks was adolescents (68% of total respondents). When consumed by children aged three to ten years, energy drinks also account for an estimated 43% of their total caffeine exposure, EFSA found. 

Crunch time for cheap drinks 

An EU-wide ban is unlikely, but not impossible, and further bans would undoubtedly hit those at the bottom end of the market. 

"All these legislative changes had a negative impact on category performance, as teenagers accounted for a large consumer base,"​ Euromonitor told us in a briefing.

"However, producers of premium energy drinks claimed that they were barely affected by the prohibition on selling the products to youngsters, as their main target audience consists of middle- and higher-income shoppers due to the relatively high unit price of premium energy drinks. Thus, the ban on energy drinks sales mostly harmed companies offering cheaper products that were mainly consumed by teens."

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© iStock.com

Volfas Engelman AB, for example, makes the Dynami:t brand of energy drink, which is popular with younger consumers. The company’s off-trade value share fell by two percentage points to 10% in 2015, according to Euromonitor. 

In response, Volfas released a new carbonate under the Dynami:t Vitamin brand. This is presented in almost the same packaging as the standard product, but with an additional label stating it is suitable for under 18s. 

But whilst cheap brands suffer, the premium end of the market could thrive. In Lithuania, an increasing share of more expensive products pushed up the average unit price by 5% in 2015, Euromonitor noted. 

The middle of the market could also go relatively unscathed, with some companies even recording volume growth despite the new legislation. 

Lithuania’s ban covers drinks containing at least 150 mg of caffeine per litre.

Most energy drinks on the EU market contain caffeine in a range from 150 to 320 mg per litre and a 250 ml can of a typical energy drink contains up to 80 mg caffeine, which is about the same amount as in a cup of coffee.  

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