Question Time

Question Time

What responsibility does the packaging industry have to address young people in an appropriate way and to ensure the products available are being targeted at a suitable audience?


A report by the BBC in January highlighted the concern that students were drinking energy drinks which could have a negative effect on their health. The report suggested that some schools had major concerns with pupils consuming the high sugar, high caffeine mix in a whole range of energy drinks that are currently available on the market. Students were said to have reported several negative side effects including nausea and shaking. There has now been a call for the packaging on these beverages to include warning labels and nutritional information which would indicate the side effects of consuming the drink. Many, however, are saying that this isn’t enough to stop young people seeking out these energy drinks. And looking at many of the can designs of market-leading energy drinks, it is easy to see why they may appeal to young adults. Both the can design and can size (energy drinks often mimic the size of a beer can) will appeal to teenagers and young adults. 



Gavin Partington, Director General- BSDA 


We are clear that energy drinks are not recommended for children, and we want to get that message across to young people and their parents. 

Since 2010 the British Soft Drinks Association has operated a voluntary industry code of practice which says that high caffeine content soft drinks are not recommended for children, and specifies that this information should be clearly stated on the label of such drinks. It also states that high caffeine soft drinks should not be promoted or marketed to those under 16.  


The BSDA code of practice does not refer to schools specifically but since 2007 the School Food Trust has set down strict rules on what drinks are allowed to be sold in schools – soft drinks containing added sugar (including energy drinks) are not permitted. BSDA supports these rules, and advocates them to be observed by all schools, even if those schools are otherwise exempt from those regulations but of course it is for teachers to decide what pupils are allowed to take into school.


We believe our code is the responsible way to ensure parents have the information necessary to decide what is right for their families.


However, it is vitally important to keep any concerns about energy drinks in proportion: there is no more caffeine in most energy drinks than in a typical cup of coffee from Starbucks. The reason we do not recommend that children consume high caffeine content drinks is because their lower body mass makes them more susceptible to the stimulant effects of caffeine and, unlike many adults, they are not used to it on a regular basis.


Millions of consumers worldwide enjoy energy drinks when they would like a physical or mental boost. But, like all food and drink, they should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle.


Gillian Garside-Wright, Packaging Technology Director, Your Packaging Partner


Packaging has a responsibility to represent any product in an appropriate way through format and graphics. The energy drinks market is highly competitive, with little room for compromise on packaging. Sales have doubled in the last six years and the size of the market in product choice has exploded. Brands are fighting for market share using product flavour and prominent packaging to attract their target market – to the detriment of children and young adults. 

In a recent BBC report government advisor John Vincent said not only do energy drinks affect concentration, but the mix of sugar and caffeine means they are, in effect, a drug. Labelled as a ‘drug’, do these products then need to be licensed with age restrictions or limited in purchase quantity, similar to over-the-counter medications? Indeed, some schools have banned energy drinks outright because of concerns. 


Energy drinks are a difficult market as their purpose is to provide an additional boost of energy when needed – in sports for example – and naturally fit a young adult customer profile. Many of the brands and own label equivalents are graphically prominent, with innovative can and bottle shapes that appeal to a younger customer. 


There is only so much packaging itself can do when it comes to addressing content problems. Currently energy drinks follow the same restrictions and legislation as all other non-licensed food and beverage products. If energy drinks remain licence-free without restriction, then customers must take responsibility for their purchases. As with all products high in sugar and/or caffeine, customers should make a considered choice on the amount consumed. Whether the confectionery market reduces pack size to meet a recommended daily amount for single portions or not, there will still be a lack of restriction on how many products the customer buys, or the packaging style, form or graphics. 


Not undermining the adverse effects which can occur when such products are consumed irresponsibly, the irony is that Lucozade – originally ‘Glucozade’ and once the market leader – was developed to provide energy for those sick with common colds or flu. It was so successful that it was made available throughout British hospitals in 1927. Even as recently as the early 1980s, the slogan for Lucozade was ‘Lucozade aids recovery’, so this brand has regrettably gone from a welcomed health benefit to a narcotic. 


I don’t believe packaging alone is the answer to the energy drinks dilemma; all areas need to be considered to meet the needs of the product and consumer. We, as the packaging industry, can contribute, but in isolation this would not answer the questions that are being asked. All must take responsibility – addressing these issues through the product, legislation, branding, packaging and consumers.


Kate Cox, Agency CEO- Bray Leino


Should children be protected from harm to their health and their education? Absolutely, no responsible marketer would disagree. Does packaging design influence people’s behaviour? It absolutely does.


Hand-rolling tobacco provides a great example of the subtle ability of packaging and design to do just this. Particular colours and visual cues are used on pouches to convey ‘more natural’, ‘organic’ or ‘healthier’ qualities than standard cigarettes. These techniques are proven in their effectiveness, and are a well-documented and deliberate strategy used by the tobacco industry. 


The nature of energy drink products means that eye-catching branding, bright colours and engaging creative have become indicative of this rapidly developing category. Its main consumer base comprises young adults and older teenagers, typically male; people who are, in fact, not so far removed from the youngsters at the centre of these concerns.


The tobacco industry has demonstrated that packaging aimed at a young adult audience will also appeal to children, and we’ve done some recent work around this issue with Smokefree on The Plain Packs Protect campaign. 


Plain Packs Protect highlights the need to remove branding and increase health warnings on cigarette packs, thereby reducing the number of children, currently hundreds of thousands of them, who try smoking for the first time every year.  


Unfortunately, brand owners are sometimes fully aware that their branding might be ‘overseen’ by a younger, ‘illegal’ audience. 


So there´s a balancing act to be performed; how to influence one legitimate audience without inadvertently gaining traction with the other? It´s right for consumers and regulators to expect rigorous self-regulation of this market, and there’s clearly an increasing role for health warnings on-pack for these products. But in terms of branding and design, it´s the drinks industry as a whole that needs to set the boundaries; to define what´s clear and fair.


The specific role of the packaging industry in all this is hard to determine. It’s a key part of the process, and has a definite obligation to operate within agreed parameters. But ultimately, branding and strategic marketing decisions are made by the brand owners, so that’s where the spotlight of scrutiny will shine most fiercely as this issue unfolds.


Given the rising temperature of debate, it would be wise for energy drink brands to make a very visible effort to address these concerns. Do otherwise and they risk sharing the fate of many other brands that have walked this fine, precarious line. If history around this issue teaches us anything, it’s that no category can withstand the combination of worried experts, media outrage and heavy government intervention. 



Gavin Partington, BSDA Director General. Gavin Partington joined the BSDA as Director General in October 2012. He was previously interim Chief Executive and Director of Communications of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. An experienced public relations consultant, he has advised and media trained a range of corporate clients. 


Gillian Garside-Wright, Packaging Technology Director, Your Packaging Partner. Gillian is a highly respected senior professional in the packaging industry, recognised for her expertise in new packaging design and creation, supply chain management and communication of trends and needs within the food packaging value chain. 


Kate Co, Agency CEO Bray Leino. Kate has extensive creative and commercial marketing experience across many diverse brands. She is constantly pushing to ensure that brilliant, innovative strategic thinking is at the heart of everything Bray Leino does for its clients.


Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall