CITY HALL — Aldermen mulled a proposed ban on high-caffeine energy drinks, but didn't swallow it whole Tuesday.
Measures to ban canned or bottled drinks with more than 180 milligrams of caffeine, or restrict their use by age, were essentially tabled as the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection recessed after an almost three-hour hearing.
"These drinks pose serious health risks to both adults and children," testified Dr. Howard Axe, president of the Chicago Medical Society. He granted, however, that this danger was mostly to those with "pre-existing conditions," especially heart problems. While he acknowledged that there was nothing illegal in highly caffeinated energy drinks, he added that they are "just highly irresponsible."
"If we find that they are dangerous to our citizens, we can ban the sale," said Ald. Edward Burke (14th), sponsor of the proposed ban on canned or bottled drinks with more than 180 milligrams of caffeine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking into five deaths connected to the Monster Energy drink. Axe also cited a study by the U.S. Substance and Abuse Mental Health Services Administration showing that emergency-room visits related to energy drinks had doubled from 2007 to 2011, from 10,000 to more than 20,000.
Burke kept pounding on marketing copy on the side of a Monster Energy can boasting they had "cooked up a double shot of our killer energy brew."
Yet Stuart Pape, a lawyer representing the American Beverage Association and the Illinois Beverage Association, said the 20,000 emergency-room visits made up a small percentage of the 136 million overall in a given year, and that the study was based on projections from sample hospitals and was not "statistically valid.
"The presence of caffeine in an energy drink is not a secret," Pape said.
"There's little or no solid medical evidence" on "causal effects," added Dr. James Coughlin, a medical consultant and an expert in nutrition and toxicology. He said a ban "can't be supported" by medical evidence.
Dr. John White, a Washington State University researcher, called a ban on energy drinks "really unwarranted and not based on science," and said that even restricting children from caffeine drinks was a "behavioral" issue and not a "physiological" concern.
"Young people don't need the stimulation or energy that comes with caffeine," Pape said.
"Energy drinks," White testified, "are really just another source of caffeine."
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said "Burke has compelling arguments here," but he took issue with how ban proponents offered no medical evidence particular to Chicago.
"I'm not sure what's in caffeine that's harmful to individuals," he said. "So far there's no answers out of this hearing."
Yet Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the Health Committee, and Ald. William Burns (4th) also proposed a complementary ordinance restricting sale of high-caffeine energy drinks by age, to those over 18 or 21.
"An age restriction may be on the table," Cardenas said after the hearing was recessed.
"We will keep taking information. We will have another date to do this again."
Wendy Crossland, a Maryland mother who blames the death of her 14-year-old daughter in part to energy drinks, was scheduled to testify, but couldn't make the trip due to the snowstorm.
Critics of the ban have pointed to how coffee can contain more caffeine than energy drinks, but would not be subject to limits under the ordinance.
Although commonly called the "Red Bull" ordinance, that drink would actually not be subject to the ban, as it doesn't contain 180 milligrams of caffeine. Larger cans of Monster Energy, 5 Hour Energy and Full Throttle, however, would be banned from sale, trade or even being given away in Chicago should the ordinance pass and be enacted. It would impose a fine of $100 to $500 for violations.