What do elected officials of the nation's third-largest city do when only four out of every 10 kids who start freshman year at a public high school graduate and only six out of every 100 freshmen go on to get four-year college degrees? What else would such officials have to do when murders in this city outpaced New York’s last year, 20 percent of which were reportedly teenagers ages 13 to 19? And what is an alderman to do when the unemployment rate in Chicago is higher than the national average?
Have no fear, citizens of Chicago. Alderman Ed Burke and his colleagues are here – with a proposed ordinance that would institute a citywide ban on energy drinks. Yes, that’s right: Chicago City Council is expending taxpayer resources on a proposed ordinance that would make it illegal for any person to sell, give away, barter, exchange or otherwise furnish any energy drink in Chicago, under penalty of fines ranging from $100 to $500. “Energy drink” is defined in the proposed ordinance as any “canned or bottled beverage” that contains 180 or more milligrams of caffeine, plus the additional ingredient of taurine or guarana.
On March 5, the council spent three hours holding its first hearing on the ordinance, which included a dramatic reading of a Monster beverage can by Burke, and a declaration from another alderman that if you are “old enough to die for your country, you should be able to purchase an energy drink in the city of Chicago.”
Putting aside the paternalistic nature and sheer ridiculousness of this proposal, along with its attack on what is a $10 billion job and commerce-creating industry, the fact is that this proposed ban lacks a scientific basis. For example, the ordinance itself cites a 2010 Mayo Clinic article that in fact concludes that further study would be needed to determine whether the “long-term use” of energy drinks by teens and young adults will “translate into effects later” and that the “limited ingestion of [energy drinks] by healthy people is not likely to cause major adverse effects.”
The ordinance also cites two reports received by the Food and Drug Administration, which claim a link between “at least 5 deaths since 2009 to a beverage called ‘Monster Energy.’” However, the FDA itself stated that the “existence of an adverse event report does not necessarily mean that the product identified in [a] report actually caused the adverse event.”
Likewise, the ordinance, along with the opening remarks at the hearing, cited to a report of a 14-year-old girl who died unexpectedly of a heart arrhythmia after drinking two Monster Energy drinks during a two-day period preceding her death. But as the FDA has explained, it is difficult to determine the cause of death in cases like this because the use of other supplements or medications at the same time, or pre-existing or undiagnosed medical conditions could have caused the death. Further, the parents of the teen are suing Monster Energy Corp. and the case is currently in litigation. Monster’s attorneys claim there is evidence that the teen regularly drank coffee. But it is apparently undisputed that she had a pre-existing heart condition. It is thus premature at best for city council to be relying on this case at all.
It is hard to choose which is worse: that city council is wasting time deliberating on beverages; that they are so willing to consider a ban on the sale of a product that is not founded on reliable, scientific evidence; or that aldermen actually believe it is their role to dictate to Chicagoans what they can eat and drink. One thing is for sure: sitting through a city council hearing like this will raise your blood pressure higher than any energy drink ever could.
The March 5 hearing will be continued at a future date. In the meantime, contact your aldermen and tell them where you stand.
Diane Cohen is General Counsel at the Liberty Justice Center