In his statement to Health & Life Magazine, Dr. Mohammed bin Saif Al Kuwari, Assistant Undersecretary for Laboratories and Standardization at the Ministry of Environment, discusses the risks of energy drinks on human health. He also highlights the efforts of the State of Qatar to raise public awareness of their risks, as well as the possibility of rendering them out of circulation in the market.
Dr. Al Kuwari raises the alarm about excessive intake of such drinks, warning that they contain high levels of caffeine and that “international companies have gradually increased content to reach 300 mg.” He is also concerned that abuse of these drinks is becoming more prevalent among athletes.
Dr. Al Kuwari stressed on the existence of long-term programs to raise public awareness among the youths about the dangers of these drinks, and added that market entry is being monitored to ensure all products are compatible with the standard specifications approved by the State.
Following are the details of the interview:
A daily intake in excess of 200 mg of caffeine causes health problems such as insomnia, tachycardia, nervousness, headaches, and others. Some energy drinks contain a proportion of caffeine higher than 200 mg per drink. How aware are the general public about the serious side effects of excessive caffeine intake?
Energy drinks are a highly controversial subject in the scientific community because they contain caffeine, a substance also found in tea and coffee as well as other beverages.
Interestingly, the proportion of caffeine in energy drinks has changed. Companies initially added relatively small amounts, but these have risen significantly and now represent a serious health risk. Moreover, some international companies raised the amount from 100 mg to 200 mg and now even 300 mg of caffeine. These amounts are not applicable in Qatar due to our control on the market, which provides products compatible with the GCC standard specifications. The approved amount of allowable caffeine is very low.
It is noteworthy that companies increase the amounts of caffeine in some energy drinks to generate in the body a sense of energy by stimulating the nervous system. However, if we look more closely, we find that this energy is not real but false, and that it only gives the person a feeling of vitality and happiness without the real presence of energy.
Energy drinks companies market their products as supplements that enhance athletic performance in individuals. For example, some domestic companies use extreme sports to market their products. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) put caffeine on the list of prohibited substances. What do you think about energy drink companies hosting sporting events?
The fact is that abuse of energy drinks unfortunately moved from youths to athletes under the pretext that such drinks give them energy and vitality instead of doping. Strangely enough, those people may overdose on such drinks and suffer from frequent urination, which results in dehydration, which in turn causes emaciation and asthenia.
Thus, we have seen that European countries imposed a ban on such drinks due to health risks, while natural drinks can give the body real strength and power.
In another context, there is a relationship between high levels of sugar in energy drinks and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. What can the State of Qatar do to raise public awareness about the risks of excessive consumption of energy drinks?
The problem is not necessarily in the sugar found in some energy drinks, but in the caffeine. Studies showed that whenever a person has an intake of caffeine, he becomes more addicted to it, leaving him more vulnerable to the substance.
As tea and coffee contain a proportion of caffeine, continuing to ingest them at high rates will lead to risky results that many people fear. This forced many countries to adopt some measures.
However, such measures collided with the principles of the World Trade Organization (WTO), though the WTO has nothing to do with the consumers’ behavior and uses of the product. Perhaps this brings us to the prevailing controversy between the standards officials and their counterparts from among the traders.
Some European countries — such as France, Norway, and Denmark — imposed a ban on the sale of energy drinks. Moreover, Arab and Gulf countries placed restrictions on places that sell these drinks. What do you think about these measures? Do you think that the State of Qatar should impose restrictions on the sale of energy drinks?
It is true that some European countries banned such drinks on the basis that each country has the right to take all necessary measures to maintain the health of its population. However, any given country cannot take any action without referring to scientific studies that prove the harmful effects of the product.
When international organizations give an indication that these drinks have harmful effects, we in Qatar abide by them based on our commitment to all international obligations and conventions.
Some countries affix health warnings to packs of energy drinks. Will Qatar seek to apply such an approach? Do you think that affixing health warning labels will contribute to guide consumers towards healthier options?
I stress that we have awareness programs, albeit weak, in Qatar. Furthermore, we affix health-warning labels to packs of energy drinks. The consumer is advised to inform us immediately if he notices otherwise.
Is there any legislation to outlaw such drinks?
There is no legislation against energy drinks. However, all necessary measures are being taken based on an international authority. We are committed to doing so according to Qatar’s pledges to respect its commitments. In general, when the World Health Organization (WHO) warns against the health risk of any product, issues a warning, or gives any indication, we do not hesitate to adhere to such rules.
Lithuania imposed restrictions on the sale of energy drinks to those who are under 21 years old. In light of studies that have shown the negative effects of energy drinks on youths, how possible is it the State of Qatar will introduce a similar restriction?
As I previously mentioned, we are moving in light of the awareness-raising efforts, in addition to the standard specifications and commitment to them. I remember that we had previously conducted a survey to monitor the extent of energy drinks intake by youths. When we asked those taking part in the survey, we found that there is a demand for energy drinks on the pretext that they give them energy, especially at times of examinations. Afterward, the energy fades away, they lose appetite and suffer from insomnia and sleep disorders. These are the implications of the caffeine found in such drinks.
Therefore, we focus on setting up outreach programs for the youths through many means such as the media and participation in various events and activities. We are serious about increasing such awareness.
Some countries have already banned the promotion of these drinks in various media. What are Qatar’s plans regarding advertisements for energy drinks?
Our role is not to block advertisements. It comes within the competence of other state bodies. Generally, I am against putting a block. What is needed is to raise public awareness among the youths and make sure that they do not have an excessive intake of such drinks, in addition to building long-term awareness with a variety of programs.
We can make people aware of the risks of these drinks and make sure that they do not have an excessive intake of them. I think this is the custom of international organizations to raise public awareness among the youths.
Do such organizations highlight the special case of each country, as it deems appropriate for the benefit of the health of its population?
The WTO already protects the special case of each country. Nevertheless, when countries discover a possible abuse of a product or an excessive intake that could cause health damage, such countries can take action according to the WTO standards. Otherwise, they will incur demerit points from the WTO.
Does this explain why energy drinks companies have the upper hand?
We cannot say so for sure. However, we say that we are working according to international organizations, not only at the national level but also at the GCC, Arab, and international levels. This means that our resolutions have major repercussions for the international community, especially considering the controversy surrounding the drinks.
Nevertheless, some countries applied standards to ban energy drinks without referring to the organizations concerned.
It has already happened. However, the international organizations recorded irregularities against such countries. In any case, these organizations require their prior consent before any country can take any action, which must be according to scientific proof.
I am a member of the WTO’s Committee in Qatar. We inform the WTO about any action that the Committee takes, such as issuing health warnings. The WTO then circulates the warning to all countries in the world. If it receives no objection to the warning, the WTO can issue an announcement about it according to its principles and standards.