Countdown has announced that from September 2, there will be an age restriction put in place on the sale of energy drinks at Countdown's 180 supermarkets nationwide.

This comes in response to growing concerns by health leaders about the impact increased consumption of high-sugar, high-caffeinated energy drinks is having on New Zealand children.

Kiri Hannifin, Countdown's general manager corporate affairs, safety and sustainability said the company has talked with a wide range of health leaders, and the combination of caffeine, sugar, serving sizes and the fact that children often consume energy drinks on the way to school was specifically highlighted to them.

"The advice and feedback we received was that when it came to children’s health, restricting the sale of energy drinks would make an important and meaningful impact in an area of high need,” said Hannifin.

“New Zealand has the third highest obesity rate in the OECD.  Energy drinks are not recommended for children and they already have to carry a warning on pack.  We’re simply choosing to proactively put this recommendation into effect in our stores and that’s why from 2 September you’ll need to be 16 years or older to buy energy drinks at Countdown.”

In a recently published paper, Dr Simon Thornley found that in New Zealand, the reduced intake of soft drinks is compensated for by the increase in consumption of juices, and sports and energy drinks.

"The sugar and caffeine in these drinks leads to children getting hooked on them, with rotten teeth and poor engagement in the classroom as predictable consequences."

Foodstuffs, however, believes in choice for all and supporting customers with education, something that is also encouraged by the New Zealand Beverage Council (NZBC) and the Food and Grocery Council (FGC). An age restriction for energy drinks is unnecessary and is a rather heavy-handed response to a problem that does not exist.

“New Zealand already has some of the strongest regulations for energy drinks in the world, and the evidence shows that these are working well,” said Antoinette Laird, head of corporate affairs, Foodstuffs. “We care about our customers and their ability to decide what is right for them. Research shows people under the ages of 16 are not high consumers of these types of products, however it is important to us that we provide customers with the information they need to make informed decisions.”

Foodstuffs’ focus is on educating children and their parents on how to make better choices in general through the in-school programme with fantastic results. “We’ve seen a reduction of sugar consumption in excess of 50 tonnes with families who have taken part.”

Foodstuffs continues to highlight healthy products in promotional material and, like all other responsible retailers and suppliers, do not promote energy drinks to young people. “We have reduced the sugar, sodium and fat content in hundreds of our Pams and Value products, including sodas. Many of our stores offer free fruit for children and have confectionery free aisles.”

Foodstuffs echoes the NZBC by advising it is important to remember that the ingredients in energy drinks have been proven to be safe and have been approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. Like all beverages containing caffeine, however, they should be consumed in moderation.

Experts in the UK advising the government during its debate on the ban of energy drink sales to under 16’s have said that there is not enough scientific evidence to warrant a ban on the sale of energy drinks to children. It was recommended instead, to have more prominent labels saying the drinks were not suitable for children. There was, however, an idea of exclusion zones of sales to children around schools.

Katherine Rich, chief executive of the FGC believes that although it is a well-meaning signal, it isn’t necessary in New Zealand. “Energy drinks absolutely are not for children, but neither are tea, coffee, or coffee flavoured milks which, in most cases, contain the same amount of caffeine,” said Rich. “New Zealand is a different market to the UK. Sales data and market information that I have seen does not indicate there is a supermarket problem to fix here in NZ. Our members have confirmed that the average energy drink consumer is well into their 20s and that the segment continues to age. Younger people don’t seem to be as interested in the products. However, that could change. By creating an issue through symbolic bans like these there’s a risk of unintended consequences and making energy drinks the next cool thing for young people.”

Rich worries that in drawing attention to energy drinks like this could have the reverse effect of encouraging more children to seek out and consume them. “As Mark Twain said, “It’s the prohibition that makes anything precious”. It’s human nature.”

Currently these drinks are not a major issue compared to others facing children and society. “When I’ve reviewed the research to look at where children get caffeine in their diet, it’s mostly from other sources like tea, coffee, some sodas and other products. Do supermarkets ban the sale of flat whites, colas or coffee pods unless a person can produce suitable ID?” Rich urges consumers and the industry to remember that supermarkets sell all sorts of things containing caffeine from flavoured milk, coffee, tea, colas and other non-child-appropriate products. In New Zealand, energy drinks are highly regulated in terms of composition, advertising and placement.

Food Safety Australia New Zealand has no current proposals to restrict sales of energy drinks.

Read what the beverage council has to say here.