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They were out, as preteen boys are wont to do on a sunny Saturday afternoon, just goofing around, and dropped in to the local convenience store. Not surprisingly, they headed straight for the pop cooler.

Undeterred by the dizzying variety, the two friends each made a quick choice -- Mountain Dew Energy.

Ten-year-old Ian MacLaughlin had, at the recent Toronto Indy, tasted a free sample and liked it.

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His friend, Christopher Askin, was also sold. "I just looked at it and said: 'Mountain Dew Energy -- it's good for me. So I just bought it."

The drink the boys chose for their pick-me-up was loaded not only with sugar but with caffeine -- a dose much higher than what is found in their parents' coffee and well beyond the levels Health Canada considers safe for children.

The Mountain Dew Energy label reads: "Contains caffeine. Not recommended for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, or caffeine sensitive persons."

Ian and Christopher were oblivious to the warning, and so was the store clerk who sold them the drinks.

The bottle of Mountain Dew Energy contains 91 milligrams of caffeine, quite a jolt, but not at all unusual for the new generation of energy drinks.

A can of Red Bull contains 130 mg of caffeine; Full Throttle contains 141 mg; Monster, 169 mg.

"I feel this is totally unacceptable," said Professor Massimo Marcone, a food scientist at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont.

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"We should really not be marketing caffeine to children and especially in the amounts we are seeing."

He said high levels of caffeine, like those found in energy drinks, cause children to be distracted and unable to concentrate, and interfere with their sleep. Caffeine, the most widely used stimulant in the world, is also habit forming.

Ian got through about one-third of his energy drink before his mother took a look at the label and confiscated it. Still, the jolt of caffeine and sugar had an effect at bedtime.

"It makes you hyper. Then you can't sleep. I couldn't sleep and ran up to my Mom's room and started panicking," Ian said.

Calla Farn, director of public affairs at Refreshments Canada, an industry association that represents more than 35 manufacturers of non-alcohol drinks, said that "energy drinks can be a safe and enjoyable part of a person's balanced beverage choices," but they are clearly aimed at adults.

"The industry does not market to children. They are not intended for children and they certainly don't recommend them for children," she said.

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But Dr. Marcone said the industry position is disingenuous. He said energy drinks are sweet and colourfully packaged so they will attract children.

And the labelling, in his view, has little value. "The companies come out and they say: 'We put warnings on it.' That's true, but we also have data that children are not label readers."

"But the letter of the law, what they've done is correct, but morally and ethically it's incorrect," Dr. Marcone said.

In fact, the law regulating caffeine content of drinks is murky.

Health Canada has issued recommendations on the levels of caffeine consumption considered safe -- 65 mg daily for 10-year-olds; 400 mg a day for adults.

The health regulator has also specifically approved only one energy drink, the popular Red Bull brand. That approval, however, was to allow the manufacturer to make a health claim: ". . . helps temporarily restore mental alertness and wakefulness when experiencing fatigue or drowsiness."

As part of that process, Red Bull agreed to say on its label that the drink was unsuitable for children, and that people should not consume more than two cans daily."

Other makers of energy drinks seem to have simply copied the warning about children. But there are no formal restrictions on sales.

Prince Edward Island is the only province with specific legislation about energy drinks: It bans their sale in bars. (Mixing the stimulants in energy drinks and the depressants in alcohol can trigger heart attacks.)

Robin Marles, manager of the science and research division of the natural health products directorate at Health Canada, said the department is aware of the growing popularity of energy drinks and of potential health concerns and is trying to figure out how to tackle the issue.

Aside from Red Bull, he said, "we haven't authorized these products. We don't have all the evidence to assess the safety, efficacy and quality of those other products."

Dr. Marles said while the government has some responsibility, so do parents. They need to teach their children to read labels, and to talk to them about the effects of stimulants such as caffeine.

"I'm the father of two teenage sons who occasionally buy these drinks," he said. "Of course, I'm concerned that they are getting too much caffeine. But I see it more as my role as a parent to advise them. There's a certain amount of shared responsibility between what government can do and parents can do."

With reports from Avis Favaro, Elizabeth St. Philip and Allison Jones, CTV News

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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