11/25/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Energy Drink Ads Still Reach Young Kids

Two very different studies crossed my desk this week and, when read together, they point to a disturbing problem.

Earlier in the week, many media outlets reported on a new study in Pediatrics which adds to the growing evidence that energy drinks pose a serious danger to young children.  Looking at data from a three-year period, researchers found that of over 5,000 calls to poison control centers around the country for energy drink caffeine overdose, over 40 percent of such calls involved children under the age of six. And the study's lead researcher, Dr. Steven Lipshultz, told CNN this finding is likely just the tip of the iceberg because many parents are likely to take a caffeine-sickened child directly to the emergency room without first calling poison control.

Lipshultz also told CNN that even teenagers can experience adverse effects from drinking 100 mg of caffeine, yet some energy drinks have as much as three times that amount. Consumption of energy drinks by preadolescents, and especially very young children, poses even greater risks. For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended since 2011 that children and teens avoid energy drinks, and it has also testified before Congress regarding concerns over the various herbal stimulants also often included in such products.

To defend itself against the poison control center study, the American Beverage Assocation (ABA) issued a statement which reads in part:

... leading energy drink makers voluntarily place advisory statements on energy drink packaging stating that energy drinks are not intended for children. They also have voluntarily pledged not to market these products to children or sell them in K-12 schools.

That statement might have been reassuring if I hadn't also received this week a copy of a new report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity regarding current trends in the advertising of sugary drinks to kids. I encourage you to take a look at the report's key findings, which relate to all sugar-sweetened beverages, but what particularly caught my eye was this: according to the Rudd Center, Red Bull, one of the leading manufacturers of energy drinks, has significantly increased its youth-directed television advertising since 2011, with teens now seeing 68 percent more Red Bull ads on TV, children seeing 59 percent more, and, disturbingly, preschoolers seeing 72 percent more such ads.

This is not to say that Red Bull is directly targeting children and preschoolers, though it and other energy drink companies are most definitely targeting teens; the ABA's statement is likely true on its face. But the Rudd Center report nevertheless found that of all sugary drink ads viewed by preschoolers and children in 2013, one out of four such ads were for energy drinks (including, but not limited to, Red Bull ads).

Taken together, the Lipshultz and Rudd Center findings present a disturbing picture, because even young children who don't have access to energy drinks now are likely forming favorable views about them from the "cool" advertising to which they're exposed. This means they're being primed to consume such beverages when they're old enough to have access to them.

Given the serious concerns raised by energy drinks, there have been a few measures proposed around the country to ban the sale of such beverages to minors, but so far these efforts have not been successful. Outside the United States, this month Lithuania became the first country in the European Union to put such a ban into effect and the United Arab Emirates enacted a similar ban in 2012 for children under the age of 16.

Unless and until we follow suit in this country, however, it's important to remember that preschoolers and other young children likely have access to energy drinks only if they're already in the home.  As Lipshultz told CBS News, "[t]hey didn't go into 7-11 and say 'I want to buy an energy drink.'" So his findings would suggest that parents who keep energy drinks around for their own consumption (or for their teens) need to keep these drinks out of reach, just as they would with any other substance that's dangerous to kids.