Monster drinks and fighting for healthy teens at home

Monster drinks investigation: The San Francisco city attorney and the New York state attorney general have partnered up to investigate if the maker of Monster drinks is directly marketing to kids. True or not, the frontline of the battle against bad foods for kids begins at home.

PRNewsFoto/Monster Energy/FILE
This promotional image provided by Monster Energy highlights one of it's sponsored athletes, "Ballistic" BJ Baldwin. In this shot, Mr. Baldwin races through Baja, California on his way to winning the SCORE International Baja 1000 in 2012.

If parents want to make sure caffeine-laced energy drink sellers like Monster Beverage Corp. keep their claws out of kids, they need help from lawmakers, search engine operators, a food rainbow, and their own willpower to resist the very substances they hope to ban from the kids’ table.

I am sitting here with my third cup of green tea instead of my usual coffee, because I realized this morning that it’s hard for my kids to accept my “no energy drinks” rule when I am rarely seen without a cup of coffee in the morning.

I bagged coffee in front of my sons today because I want to do my part to support both the San Francisco city attorney and New York state attorney general who claim Monster Beverage Corp. energy drink maker is marketing to children.

This idea is a throw-back to when my husband, Robert, quit smoking 15 years ago and the boys saw what he went through to get healthy and sane again. Not one of the boys has ever touched tobacco products and they tell stories of his withdrawal-induced grouchiness the way other kids tell tales of werewolves and things that go bump in the night. 

Now, two of my sons are teens and I’m worried about them hiding a Monster (the kind you sip from a can) under their beds after my husband and I repeatedly forbade energy drinks. Hence the extreme measure of going without coffee for the next month.

Frankly, if more parents gave up caffeine for a month kids would get the message of just how addictive, unhealthy, and personality altering a substance it can be. (Yes, green tea is caffeinated as well, but coffee comes with 2 to 10 times more caffeine per volume.)

However, while I believe parents can fight big beverage and fast food sellers and their hype by leading through example, I also agree with Sara Deon, Director of Value the Meal Campaign at Corporate Accountability International.

Through an e-mail interview asking about marketing to kids, Ms. Deon said:

"Since Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, the junk food industry has relied on tobacco industry tactics to hook kids on its unhealthy products and make them customers for life. Simply put, parents cannot compete with the billion-dollar ad budgets of the food industry that seek to reach kids at home, at school and increasingly online. We must pass mandatory regulations on junk food marketing and promotion like Monster's, in order to give parents the space to keep their kids healthy."

Show me a corporate spokesperson or CEO anywhere who admits to marketing unhealthy food or drink to kids and I will show you a job opening where they used to be.

You will be able to see through that opening clear down to the basement where the company’s stock price will be.

In order to decode what’s happening here, and figure out how to protect our kids, we need to understand semantics.

Parents become experts at semantics because kids are born knowing how to use them to get around us.

Parent: “I don’t want you walking home with those kids anymore.”

Child after being caught with the kids on the way home the next day: “You said I couldn’t ‘walk home.’ I’m on my bike!”

That’s semantics.

However, those same parsings never work in reverse. If Mom says, “Caffeine is bad for you.” Kids will respond, “But you love it. You even posted coffee pictures on your Facebook wall!”

Monster is playing with semantics by saying they don’t market “directly” to kids by putting their products in lunch boxes, but they still advertise on gaming websites, at sporting events, and serve as the sponsor of YouTube videos my kids watch.

I can usually count on videos of “Sonic the Hedgehog” or other speed-related games to include Monster ads, if not as the lead-in, then on websites covering the game.

We can also thank search engines like Google, which match online ads to search habits, thereby constantly linking our kids with products we might oppose when they are online.

I know parents can beat the marketing machine at its own game through persistence, because last year I wrote about one mom who got her daughter past the marketing hype via “food rainbow.”

Hannah Robertson, 9, of Canada helps her mom make videos on how to cook healthy foods in their Rainbow Kitchen.

Hannah passes on what her mom taught her, encouraging kids and parents to partner in the kitchen, to “Eat a rainbow every day,” according to their site

The Monster issue is important for parents because researchers such as Kathleen E. Miller, principal investigator at the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, tell us that kids who drink-in the combination of caffeine and marketing make everyone around them suffer.

Ms. Miller told The New York Times magazine, “I’ve found that if you report that you have six or more energy drinks over the course of a month, you’re also more likely to report that you got in a fight last year, that you had sex without a condom or that you drove without a seat belt.” 

Miller also told the Times magazine, “They [Monster and Red Bull] may be reinforcing some of these behaviors not so much because of the caffeine content – which can certainly have an effect – but because of what the ads are telling people.”

If we want to fight the marketing, parents need to support lawmakers' efforts, and vice versa.

Maybe we can all get together over a cup of herbal tea and talk about how we can be more effective.

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