"One day I was cleaning my daughter's room when I saw an empty can with a colorful design on her desk," the mother of a girl in the 6th grade tells Shukan Post (July 13). "When I asked her what it was, she replied 'It's an energy drink. All the kids drink it. It sharpens your mind and helps you get through studies.'"
"It seems she buys it on her way home from juku (cram school) and drinks it in her room. I was surprised."
Beverages known as "energy drinks" generally contain caffeine and are designed to help avoid drowsiness. They first began appearing on store shelves in Japan from around the middle of the last decade, and have become popular among businessmen and athletes.
"Professor Shingo Noi of Nippon Sport Science University conducted a survey of the nutritional habits of Japanese students in elementary, middle and high schools," said Chika Akiyama, a journalist who has been covering this phenomena. "From responses by 1,096 students, 24.4% of junior high school students and 48.4% of high school students gave positive replies to 'I habitually consume energy drinks while at school.' While the figures for elementary school students were fairly low, some teachers have confirmed that they've seen students drinking them, too. One girl in a Tokyo junior high school was found to consume from two to four cans a day. When cautioned by her teacher to avoid excess, she replied, 'I'm hopeless without it.'"
Hisashi Kurihara, a former professor at Tokyo University of Social Welfare, explained the source of the drinks' popularity.
"Whether it's attending cram schools or sports, elementary school kids are constantly exhorted to excel by their parents," Kurihara said. "They're under a heavy load. Even if they think caffeine will give them a boost or banish drowsiness, they don't much like coffee or tea due to the bitterness. Energy drinks also have a lot of sugar, making them taste sweet, and the packaging design is catchy, so I suppose for them, it's just like drinking juice."
According to the mother quoted in the first paragraph, her daughter attends juku four evenings a week, returning home after 10:30 p.m. Afterwards she still has to do homework, staying up past midnight.
"It's a really demanding life for a 12-year-old," she remarks. "It surprised me at first, but I suppose she drinks them because they give her a lift."
Some parents are said to even encourage their children to imbibe the drinks, convinced the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
The drinks are regarded as a type of nutritional supplement, which differentiates them from the small bottles of vitamin tonic beverages known in Japanese as dorinku-zai, which under the former law were classified as pharmaceutical products. The energy drinks are classified as soft drinks and producers are not authorized to make specific claims toward their efficacy. They are sold at convenience stores and others from the same racks as bottled tea or juice.
A market survey last year found that while the dorinku-zai market shrank by about 20% over the previous 10 years, to 172.3 billion yen, overall sales of energy drinks doubled over the same period, reaching 81.4 billion yen.
The aforementioned Kurihara warns, "Large quantities of caffeine, for children whose brains are in the process of developing, can adversely affect the nervous system, possibly raising the risk of hallucinations, delusions or seizures. Naturally elementary school children should avoid these drinks, and that goes for middle school and high school students as well."
In February of this year, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) issued a recommendation that energy drinks not target children or adolescents.
A spokesperson for Red Bull Japan gave this comment to Shukan Post: "A 250ml can of Red Bull energy drink contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, or about the same quantity as coffee. As children are smaller and should refrain from drinking the same amount as adults, our company do not market the product to children."
At present, Japan has are no regulations or restrictions on sales of energy drinks, but an official at Food Safety Standards and Evaluation Division of the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry confirmed they are aware of the problem and "are considering measures."© Japan Today