Is caffeine about to become the latest public health target?


My local Co-Op recently underwent one of those ghastly upgrades which turn slightly glorified corner shops into mini convenience meccas, where one can buy just about anything, so long as you’re prepared to pay a little bit more than you would at a place you have to drive to.

A whole new aisle was crammed in to accommodate the jars of olives, tortilla kits and bags of fancy popcorn that for some hitherto unexplained reason occupy more prominent positions than milk, bread, eggs and other things people actually want to buy.

The whole thing was launched with aplomb. A sponsored Facebook post appeared in my timeline announcing ‘Beersbridge’s new Co-Op’. Nobody calls it that. That tragic, since corrected, misfire, which probably originated inside Co-Op’s vast Manchester headquarters set the theme, for in the process of the revamp two of the most obnoxious and patronising self-service check outs imaginable were installed.

Now this has its advantages – for me – in that nobody else ever seems to want to use them. They only take card payments and are unable to dispense either tobacco or scratchcards. While the queue to check out at the only staffed checkout is often five people long, I can usually jump the queue and head straight for Little Miss Condescending, thereby drastically reduce the time I spend standing in the far-too-narrow aisle up against the one kilo bars of Dairy Milk, waiting for people to get “a Lucky Dip for tonight”.

It was during an encounter with this highly mechanised unpleasantness that I first got wind of the apparent seriousness of energy drinks.

I was on the way to the gym and had stopped for some supplies. Chewing gum, beep beep, more chewing gum, beep beep, Monster, flashing red lights and ‘Challenge 25 – the assistant need to confirm your age’ (syntax errors are an increasingly common theme of my local Co-Op) flashing on the screen.

I panicked, and not only because – like everyone else who has ever shopped in there, including police officers – I was parked on the double yellow lines outside and needed to be on my way. Instead of picking up a relatively harmless drink that would increase my focus in the gym, had I mistakenly attempted to purchase industrial effluent, some solvent, or perhaps a rather large machete?

After waiting around for two or three minutes for the one guy on the till to notice that his eventual replacement had ceased to earn its keep my age was finally verified and I was able to chug my (modest) 150mg of caffeine without any further encumbrance.

There is currently no age at which you cannot legally buy an energy drink, but that hasn’t stopped retailers enforcing their own bans and asking for ID. Most energy drink producers will state that the product isn’t meant for children despite the fact that caffeine overdoses are generally harmless. Unless you think fidgeting, anxiety and insomnia are life changing experiences, that is.

Some deaths are occasionally linked to caffeine though. However, these deaths don’t occur because of caffeine overdoses, as a lethal dose of caffeine is virtually impossible to achieve for the average person whose caffeine consumption is liquid based. Most people will die with 10g of caffeine in them. That’s 66 cans of Monster or 133 Tall Vanilla Lattes from Starbucks. And you better have the capacity to drink all of that, all at once, before it passes out of your body.

Rather, rare caffeine-related deaths are the result of bodies that haven’t yet grown accustomed to caffeine yet and underlying, or undiagnosed, heart conditions. Indeed, the coroner in one recent case was at pains to point out that the death of a teenager who drank a latte, a Mountain Dew and an energy drink was not related to caffeine overdose. Indeed, looking at a list of deaths where caffeine is known to be a factor, deaths tend to be either freak accidents or intentional.

The fact that deaths where caffeine has been a factor seem to occur mostly among the young leaves an increasing number of people ‘thinking of the children’.

The NASUWT welcomed Waitrose’s under-16s energy drink ban with a wish that it would “also encourage the Government to produce national guidelines on recommended consumption levels of caffeine for children”. They went on to say that “These drinks are readily available legal highs.”

They have previously called for a blanket ban on caffeinated products to under-16s, and so too has a Welsh Labour AM.
It seems that these people just can’t help themselves. While I’m sure some of them are motivated by what they consider to be an epidemic of deaths attributable to excess caffeine there is, as usual, a degree of snobbery about it all. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the involvement of nanny-in-chief Jamie Oliver, whose views government seem to lend credence to for no discernible reason. Jamie will serve you with virtually any caffeinated (and sugar-laden) product in one of his restaurants. Yet he hypothesises that energy drinks affect the concentration levels of kids in class, which impacts upon the grades of other children, thereby crossing his tolerance threshold.

The public health lobby have never been known for logic or consistency but Conservative MP Maria Caulfield’s argument for a ban is even more bizarre than Oliver’s. The suicide of a 25-year-old man who also drank heavily and whose parents say energy drinks made him anxious has been advanced as a reason to ban energy drinks for under-16s. The response from Jackie Doyle-Price was even stranger. The Minister said: “we do know that all stimulants whether its alcohol or caffeine do actually have consequences which can affect peoples’ mental health”.

The public health industry’s stated aim is of preventing under-16s getting their hands on a substance that is generally harmless and available in greater quantities in their local Costa. But what Doyle-Price’s response suggests is that there is a willingness in government to equate caffeine with things the public already acknowledge as harmful, like alcohol. That alone should serve to act as a red flag to anyone who enjoys a simple cup of coffee.