Countdown’s restriction on the sale of energy drinks to under-16s came into force this week. Near-lifelong energy drink consumer Sam Brooks writes on his relationship with the buzzy beverages, and what he thinks of the age restriction.
I was seven years old when V launched in New Zealand. That radioactive green can made it look like the Nitro Crates from Crash Bandicoot. I was maybe a bit younger when Red Bull launched here, with those hand-drawn ads and that futuristic blue-silver combo. Red Bull gives you wiiiings. Energy drinks have been around as long as I’ve been able to be influenced by them, or at least by their marketing.
They were somewhere in that grey area between soda and alcohol. It was a treat like soda – it was sweet, and it tasted exclusive. It triggered something in your brain – this wasn’t an everyday thing, it was only something you could have sometimes. And, of course, when you’re a child and something is a treat, only a sometimes thing, then once you get your own agency and money, you go full ham on it.
But energy drinks were also cool like alcohol was cool. They had these huge marketing campaigns – big, proper campaigns. You were cool if you drank energy drinks. Red Bull gave you bloody wings. If you drank V, you were cool. If you managed to sneak $2.50 away from your parents or your pocket money and you brought it into school, you were cool. And for only $2.50 and a mild headache that went away after the first few months of daily doses! Remember this was the late 90s to early aughts – Avril Lavigne wearing a tie was cool. Coolness was, as it ever has and ever will be, fucking stupid and eternally unattainable. No matter how cool you are, some dick is gonna hate you.
I wish I could remember my first energy drink. I probably begged for it from my mother, who would later go on to work for Frucor, the manufacturer of V. That’s the energy drink which has more than a 60% share in New Zealand, thanks largely to a very slight price difference from its biggest competitor and near constant viral marketing campaigns. Remember the jetpack? Remember the sponsorship of the 48 Hour Film Festival, where a team was given an entire rack of V to keep them awake over 48 hours? Imagine if they were sponsored by Lion Red, and you were given an entire crate of Lion Red to drink over 48 hours while you made a film.
There’d be riots. Drunken 48-hour riots.
I know nothing about the science of energy drinks. I can look at the back of the can and assume that yes, they’re bad for me. A small can of blue V has 34.7g of sugar, a small can of Red Bull has 27g of the stuff, among other ingredients. That’s 30% or 39% of your daily intake. But that’s on the can. So is the caffeine content (78mg for V, 80mg for Red Bull) and the amount of cans you’re meant to have daily, which is only two. All that is there for you. (Full disclosure: The first time I have looked at the back of either of these cans was to write this piece.)
But let’s be real: when was the last time you listened to a can rather than marketing? Actually, scratch that: When was the last time a 15 year-old listened to a can telling them, solely in numbers and percentages, that they maybe shouldn’t drink it? And when was the last time a 15-year-old listened to a supermarket telling them they’re not old enough (read: mature enough) to drink something? I’d bet there’s not a single person reading this story who didn’t have a sip of alcohol before they were 18, and if you didn’t stop drinking alcohol, you’re not gonna stop drinking energy drinks.
Lord knows, I haven’t. Every day, on my way to work, I’ll go to the local and get myself a can of whatever energy drink they happen to have available. My preference? A big can of blue V. You know, the flavour that famously launched with a campaign where you had to guess what flavour it was.
I don’t have a concrete reason why. I can handle coffee just fine – even though I have to have a few sugars or some milk to dilute it with. I’m not a huge fan of hot drinks, and I suppose even a can of big V is cheaper than an iced coffee. It’s not that I particularly like the taste. I’m sure after 20 years of drinking them there’s some placebo effect – a can of V tastes like being awake, so my body decides to wake up. I’m not even sure it’s better than a can of Coke – a drink I’ve been told since I was born is bad for me, and I’m sure some of that naysaying has had time to sink in. Coke has been uncool for as long as I’ve been alive, and in my life, there’s been a decade of anti-Coke rhetoric that energy drinks just haven’t had.
I don’t think restriction is the answer to stopping kids from drinking energy drinks. It’s an answer, sure, and even part of an effective answer. But the moment you ban something, the moment you restrict something, there’s a group of idiots somewhere who will capitalise on that. Cut to the ludicrous image of dodgy men outside Countdown Grey Lynn offering to buy V for desperate teenagers. Or, more likely, cut to a group of kids just going to the dairy across the road for their energy drink fix.
The answer is, as it is to many things, education. Education about everything that’s in a can of V, or a can of Red Bull, or a can of Monster. I’d wager if you’re drinking Monster you’ve got other issues, though.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.