Energy drink makers Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar took a pounding Wednesday in a Senate commerce hearing about their marketing practices, which the senators argue are targeting children and teens.
The hearing followed letters sent last month by Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to Red Bull, Monster Beverage Corp., Rockstar and Living Essentials asking the companies to detail their marketing practices to children and teenagers.
A number of reports have raised serious questions about the health risks energy drinks pose to youth, suggesting that children and adolescents should not consume caffeine. Last month, the American Medical Association said it would support a ban on marketing energy drinks to children under 18 because the caffeinated beverages could cause heart problems and other issues.
The questioning of the energy drink execs was handled by the tag team of Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), two lawmakers on the committee who are very familiar with issues around marketing certain products that could be unhealthy or unsafe for children and teens. With Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the trio of Senators conducted research finding that adolescents are a major target of the energy drink companies through websites, events and other unconventional marketing practices.
Even though all three energy drink companies have agreed not to market to children under 12 and agree to guidelines set by the American Beverage Association, Blumenthal and Markey pushed hard on the companies to extend the ban to include teens under 16.
"I find the denial of marketing to children difficult to accept," Blumenthal said to Rodney Sacks, the chairman and CEO of Monster Beverage Corp., referring to Monster's Monster Army Web page. "The facts and common sense show that the pitches and promotions to kids have been open and relentless."
Sacks tried to explain that Monster Army was a sponsorship program for athletes and that the pictures of children at the events showed them with their parents. "The amount that we spend on this program is very little in relation to our marketing budgets," said Sacks. "This is a development program."
That didn't cut it with Blumenthal and Markey, who compared Monster's program to old feeder strategies used by the tobacco companies to lure young smokers.
In another example, Markey pointed to a picture of a 12-year-old skateboarder posted on Rockstar's Facebook page from a Rockstar event.
"A Rockstar fan for life," Markey said. "Why would we not think this was part of the promotion plan?"
Rockstar's COO and CFO Janet Weiner said she felt she and her peers were being "demonized. A coffeehouse coffee contains more caffeine. Teenagers frequent coffeehouses every day of the week; they are some of the biggest consumers. The largest intake of caffeine by teenagers isn't coming from energy drinks. If you're looking at caffeine, you have to look at caffeine from coffee," she said.
At the end of the hearing, Markey tried to extract voluntary commitments from the companies on the spot, but to no avail. None of the three companies would agree to put a label on their product limiting consumption to older than 16.
"We want it all to end. We want to make sure to protect young people, 13-, 14-, 15-years-old. We're going to return to the subject," insisted Markey. "We're going to ask you to reexamine your policies. We'll be looking for real results. When it comes to marketing to children and adolescents, focus on safety, not semantics."