Opinion: Expending Energy Drinks

Expect long battle in D.C. and beyond in wake of Monster lawsuit, FDA probe

Steve Holtz, Editor in Chief, CSP Daily News

OAK BROOK, Ill. -- I remember drinking my first energy drink. I winced at the taste. My heart raced a little. My face got flush. I was pretty sure I'd never drink another one. (Turns out that wasn't the case.)

But more than anything, I remember the warning: "Limit to three cans a day."

It, or something similar, is still there today on most brands, along with cautions about the products not being intended for children or pregnant women. I remember thinking, even alcoholic beverages don't suggest a limit to the amount you drink, they just ask you to be careful when you do.

It sticks in my brain because such messages on energy-drink packaging are entirely voluntary, unlike the warnings on alcoholic beverages or cigarettes. And it occurs to me today as Monster Energy faces a lawsuit in the death of a 14-year-old girl after reportedly drinking just two cans of Monster and a larger investigation by the Food & Drug Administration after it received reports of five deaths and one heart attack that may be associated with Monster Energy from 2009 through June this year.

(See Related Content below for previous CSP Daily News coverage.)

Upon hearing such accusations, a first reaction might be to pull such product from shelves, to absolve oneself from culpability. But such a kneejerk reaction would be shortsighted and, frankly, harmful.

For the manufacturers, on the one hand, the "consume responsibly" cautions on labels could be interpreted as the beverage manufacturers covering their butts, knowing that there are inherent dangers to consuming energy drinks. On the other hand, maybe these manufacturers took the responsibility upon themselves to send a friendly warning about adverse effects without having to get the feds involved.

For its part, Monster Beverage Corp., after expressing its sympathies to the family of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, said it "does not believe that its products are in any way responsible for the death of Ms. Fournier and intends to defend the lawsuit. ... Neither the science nor the facts support the allegations that have been made," the company said in a statement.

Regardless, pending the outcome of the lawsuit and the FDA probe, the industry can expect a lot of hubris from well-meaning politicians, as they fight to curry constituents' favor by taking up the mantle of regulations for energy drinks. In fact, 55% of respondents to a CSP Daily News poll said they expect regulation to kick in within the next 12 months, and 93% say it will come eventually. This could mean more warnings on packages, it could mean POP signage, it could mean age-restricting the beverages, and it could, to the most extreme, mean banning energy drinks completely.

On the heel of news of the lawsuit and investigation, Monster Beverage stock dropped from $57.08 per share on Oct. 18 to $40.29 on Tuesday. It recovered slightly yesterday to as high as $46.86. And a similar dip may play out in convenience stores as consumers react to the news. But the probe is so specific to Monster that at most consumers will likely move from one energy-drink brand to another. And, frankly, for the daredevils that drink Monster, the news may mean a bump in unit sales.

For the interim, however, retailers need to stay the course with this lucrative product category. We might see isolated protests and campaigns to remove energy drinks from shelves in the wake of these investigations, but, like alcohol and tobacco products, energy drinks remain legal products that for years now have proven themselves to be relatively harmless. Now is not the time to remove that POP advertising or pull back on a special offer on Monster or any other energy drink.

Let the process play out in the courtroom and in Washington. You may even want to contact your legislator to remind him or her that energy drinks are one of the fastest-growing product categories in c-stores and pulling them would be a major pain-point.

But in the meantime, let's let the 2-fors continue.

What do you think will result from the current FDA investigation of energy drinks? Email me at [email protected], or leave your thoughts in the "Comments" section below.

Steve Holtz, CSP/Winsight By Steve Holtz, Editor in Chief, CSP Daily News
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