By Hal Dardick
6:24 PM EST, March 5, 2013
The perceived dangers to children posed by often-sugary, much-caffeinated energy drinks resulted in much talk but no action Tuesday during a City Council committee hearing.
Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, has proposed banning drinks with at least 180 milligrams of caffeine that also include taurine, an amino acid, or guarana, an Amazonian plant that contains caffeine. But like many an attention-drawing Burke proposal, it led to no vote — only an agreement for further discussion — even as it provided work for well-connected lobbyists, attorneys and consultants.
Red Bull hired Mark Fary, the former 12th Ward alderman. The American Beverage Association hired Victor Reyes, onetime political chief for former Mayor Richard M. Daley, and attorney Michael Kasper, a political ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And 7-Eleven Inc. hired Sam Panayotovich, a former state legislator and partner of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
All four have lobbied the mayor’s office and aldermen against Burke’s proposal, as well as one by Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, to ban the sale of energy drinks to anyone under age 21, according to city disclosures.
Cardenas, who oversaw the hearing as chairman of the Health Committee, said he was disinclined to ban energy drinks but would consider requiring more-detailed labeling so parents are better informed. “At the end of the day, you want better consumer protection, and that means labeling,” Cardenas said, adding that he still hasn’t completely ruled out pursuing some type of age-related ban.
Dr. Howard Axe, president of the Chicago Medical Society, testified that his group backs Burke’s proposal to ban “super-caffeinated energy drinks,” saying they are marketed to young adults who don’t understand the health risks, particularly those with pre-existing conditions. “We base our opposition on the growing evidence that these drinks pose serious health risks, including possible fatalities, in both adults and children,” he said.
But doctors and other medical experts testifying on behalf of the American Beverage Association said the amounts of caffeine per ounce in energy drinks generally are safe, even if pregnant woman and children should be wary of drinking them for health and behavioral reasons.
Among the cases discussed at the hearing were those of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, who died in December 2011 from a heart attack she suffered hours after drinking a 24-ounce can of Monster Energy; and 15-year-old Brian Shepherd of Toronto, who died in January 2008 from acute heart arrhythmia after drinking a Red Bull sample during a paintball tournament.
Fournier’s parents are suing Monster Beverage Corp. in California, alleging the energy drink contributed to the death of their daughter, who also had a heart ailment. A report from the Maryland medical examiner’s office concluded Fournier died from cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.
Monster Beverage contends that conclusion is without merit and held a news conference in Chicago on Monday to make its case. It highlighted the work of the medical expert it hired.
“After examination of Miss Fournier’s medical records, pathology report and autopsy report, the physician stated conclusively that there is no medical, scientific or factual evidence to support the Maryland medical examiner’s report of caffeine toxicity — or that Miss Fournier’s consumption of two Monster Energy drinks contributed to or let alone was the cause of her untimely death.” said Daniel Callahan, the company’s attorney.
Similarly, Red Bull has denied its produced contributed to Shepherd’s death. Canada, meanwhile, has limited the amount of caffeine in energy drinks to 180 milligrams.
A 24-ounce can of Monster Energy, which contains taurine and 240 milligrams of caffeine, would be banned under Burke’s proposal, which specifically refers to Fournier’s death. By comparison, a 16-ounce bottle of Coca Cola has about 46 milligrams, and a grande coffee at Starbucks has about 330 milligrams, according to each company’s web site.
Burke, chairman of the Finance Committee, previously has floated at least eight bans that went nowhere, including one on pre-mixed drinks that contain alcohol and caffeine and another for trans fats in restaurant fryers. But he’s had success in some cases, like when he led a 2009 effort to ban plastics that contain the chemical BPA.
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