Generation Y is struggling. Seventy-seven percent of young Americans are delaying major life changes due to the depressed economy. They are exhausted from overloaded schedules. They are bleary-eyed from scanning job boards. They are anxious about paying off their student loans, particularly since student loan debt surpassed credit card debt last year. They are scared about their future.
Today’s youth manage the brutal hours, rejection and emotional ups and downs in many ways, including an increasing reliance on energy drinks. They fuel up on supercharged beverages like Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar to get them through the long days and longer nights. Generation Y is a huge reason why energy drink global sales rose to a stunning $37 billion in 2011.
It’s a win-win relationship, fueling the economy and the spirits of young America. It may not be the healthiest dietary choice, but it’s a lot smarter than many of the alternatives (cigarettes, alcohol, pills and marijuana). Unfortunately, some politicians refuse to accept this choice and think that they can protect (read: control) Gen Y’ers from undesirable individual preferences through regulation.
This week, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) called on the FDA to limit caffeine levels in drinks and reclassify them as dietary supplements despite the industry’s existing voluntary labeling and marketing policies. The letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg is in response to the sad story of Anais Fournier – the Maryland teen with a heart condition who died in December from caffeine toxicity after overloading on jumbo energy drinks. It is human nature to search for someone or something to blame for such a tragedy, and large corporations always make a convenient target. But it’s a major overreaction to use this one story as evidence that the industry is responsible. Or that young Americans are incapable of controlling their intake of energy drinks.
This is Durbin’s second misguided attack on the industry – starting with last year’s failed Dietary Supplement Labeling Act, a bill designed to curb “unsafe practice” in the energy drink market by giving more power to the FDA. The last time the FDA took major action in the beverage industry was - as Generation Y would say - “an epic fail.” In 2010, the FDA forced the makers of Four Loko to remove caffeine from the popular product, inadvertently giving rise to an extensive black market. Across the nation, prices for the banned product jumped 200 percent and police scrambled to shut down dealers exploiting young Americans in back alleys and dark parking lots.
The ripple effect of Durbin’s bill may extend to the state level, where activists will target legislatures they can manipulate in places like California. Once a forward-thinking hotbed for innovation, California is now beholden to reactionaries who make baseless claims and create hysteria to pass needless and overreaching laws and ordinances that simultaneously fail to achieve the stated objective and drive business away. The regulatory climate in California is marked by anarchy and an outmoded adherence to the precautionary principle.
In a nutshell, the precautionary principle puts an impossible burden of proof on the framers of new policies by forcing them to show that their proposals would create no harm. It essentially embraces a motto of guilty until proven innocent and enables conspiracy theorists to hijack governmental oversight.
The world no longer follows California’s lead in enacting policies on health, safety and the environment, but many U.S. states still do. California’s regulations are some of the most stringent, costly and unenforceable in the world. They create significant financial hurdles for businesses across a variety of industries, but there’s no need to look beyond the beverage industry to find examples of dangerous overreaching. Coca-Cola and Pepsi recently had to change their products to avoid getting slapped with cancer warning labels, even though the FDA said that a person would need to drink 1,000 cans of soda every day to be at risk.
The state’s regulatory attacks extend beyond giants like Coke and Pepsi, striking at entrepreneurs and growing businesses. A spate of recent class action lawsuits filed under the California Consumer Protection Law have ensnared Cyto Sport, Vita Coco, Xing Tea, ZICO and other young companies for deceptive advertising and other functional claims about their products. Filing these suits in California “opens the door” to similar filings in other states, which is used to extort money out of companies fearful of litigation elsewhere around the nation.
Rather than protecting young consumers, California-style regulations damage small businesses and drive up prices. The only beneficiaries are the slimy law firms who set up shop specifically to prey on companies that fall into this regulatory black hole. By wielding regulatory action like a blunt instrument, California hasn’t punished corrupt corporations that are a pox on society – it has only bred a new pox in the form of ambulance chasers.
The death of a young adult is always a tragedy, but exploiting it to further an anti-corporate agenda under the guise of public safety is unconscionable. Generation Y needs help. Generation Y needs jobs. Generation Y needs student debt relief. Generation Y needs leadership. Generation Y does not need energy drink regulation.
Brad Chase is a partner with Capitol Media Partners, a Los Angeles-based communications and public affairs consultancy. He was recently named to PR News’ 15 to Watch list, which recognizes the best communications executives in the United States under the age of 30. He has worked for Democratic political campaigns and causes but is now an independent.