29 August 2012

New York AG vs. "energy drinks"

I do not have too much to say about this or too much time, but since I have been following this issue here, I thought I would make a brief mention of this story about the New York Attorney General investigating energy drinks.

A few random observations:
The state investigators are also examining whether some additives, like black tea extract and guarana, may contain additional caffeine that is not reflected when the drinks are labeled. 
It is really hard to complain about that.  I know that there are some people who think that even informational labeling mandates are anti-liberty.  But as an economist, I have to say that providing accurate information, and trying to provide as much decision-relevant information as possible, even if that involves mandates, is necessary for real informed autonomy (i.e., liberty).

However, once again (as I have pointed out numerous times), what makes these drinks unique in the human experience is the other active ingredients, other than the caffeine (which is often quite modest in quantity).  But, hey, investigating the full picture would be hard, and the newspapers would not give the politicians free press for doing it because the health reporters would have to try to understand something, so never mind.

This, however, is rather unfortunate:
The attorney general...is also looking at whether the companies...violated federal law in promoting the drinks as dietary supplements rather than as foods, which are regulated more strictly.
It is pretty difficult to think of these concoctions as food.  The only reason to define them that way would be to be able to ban them as "adulterated".  (That silly word, in itself, makes the case:  How does it make any sense at all to refer to an engineered, completely artificial product as "adulterated"?  It is what it is.)
[Amelia M. Arria, an epidemiologist who serves as director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health] added. “The term ‘energy drink’ is misleading. Energy should come from calories — this is more about stimulation.”
I like that point.  That is the kind of simple truth in labeling that could nudge people into making better decisions without needless restrictions or manipulative games.  A refreshingly rational and non-doctrinaire point, given the title of the speaker.  Oh, but wait...
“A person who co-ingests an energy drink and alcohol doesn’t understand how drunk they are,” Ms. Arria said. “Caffeine keeps you awake so you can keep drinking, and high levels of caffeine can mask intoxication.”
Huh?  One of the effects of being drunk, for some people, is drowsiness and the like.  Caffeine and other drugs can eliminate (not "mask") that particular effect, but certainly not the other effects.  Perhaps she is arguing that getting groggy and falling asleep is a feature of drunkenness, rather than a bug.  But, funny, you never hear "public health" people arguing that this is a good self-correction built into drinking, even though they are happy to implicitly evoke it when condemning some other product.

Finally, there is this:
The amount of caffeine differs widely among drinks but can range from about 80 milligrams to more than 500 milligrams. By comparison, a 12-ounce cola contains about 50 milligrams of caffeine, while a 5-ounce coffee has about 100 milligrams.
The 80 mg is more typical, so that range is rather misleading.  But more important, why did they not just compare, say, 20 ml of coffee, if they were going to report an absurdly small quantity.  Who pours only  5 oz. of coffee?

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