Energy drinks, junk food as bad as cigarettes: teacher

Peta Dampney and Daniel Wendt are campaigning against the consumption of energy drinks by children. Picture by Ryan Osland
Peta Dampney and Daniel Wendt are campaigning against the consumption of energy drinks by children. Picture by Ryan Osland

IT’S not so much the cigarettes kids are smoking, Newcastle school teacher Peta Dampney said.

‘‘I’m more concerned about the energy drinks and junk food that kids are buying and eating on their way to and from school.’’

The innocuous comment on the Newcastle Herald’s Facebook page last week hit a nerve, prompting a flood of support from fellow teachers, health experts and parents and reigniting calls for a ban on the sale of high-caffeine energy drinks to minors.

Ms Dampney, a casual relief teacher who also heads up an initiative called Newy Matters which is targeting health and wellbeing projects in Newcastle, was responding to calls from the Cancer Council to reduce the number of retail outlets that sell tobacco, especially near schools.

‘‘I’m always astounded when I see a 12-year-old buying 700ml cans of energy drinks and stuffing them in their school bag,’’ Ms Dampney said. 

‘‘A 12-year-old buying cigarettes would raise eyebrows and wouldn’t happen, but no one seems to bat an eyelid at a 12-year-old buying high-caffeine Mother or Red Bull.

‘‘In my opinion, these drinks are having huge impacts on the behaviour and health of young kids. I see it every day, and I just think we need to put some ethics back into the debate and seriously consider whether or not there should be a ban on kids buying them.’’

Moves such as that have been considered in recent years and have come to nothing, although energy drinks are banned from sale at school canteens.

The most notable campaign came from the Australian Medical Association last year and was widely applauded.

The industry itself has argued that there is no evidence to support a ban. The Australian Beverages Council boss Geoff Parker argued that young people consume vastly higher amounts of caffeine through coffee, chocolate and flavoured milk than they do from energy drinks. He also argued that the industry is by law required to place labels on high-caffeine drinks saying they’re not suitable for children and should not be consumed in large amounts.

Further, the industry says it doesn’t market such drinks at children, although critics argue otherwise.

Newcastle psychologist Daniel Wendt said the jury was still out on whether or not high-caffeine drinks have detrimental impacts on a child’s behaviour or mental health.

‘‘Certainly these drinks can cause a lack of sleep and anxiety issues, and especially where there are existing anxiety issues,’’ he said.

‘‘All kids will react differently, and there is some research which suggests that kids who are naturally more aggressive or prone to risk-taking behaviour are more attracted to high-energy drinks, but the research is generally correlational in nature.

‘‘In other words, it’s not certain that changes in behaviour or mental wellbeing are actually caused by what they’re drinking.

‘‘Certainly the area warrants more research,’’ he said.


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