COLUMBIA — A ban on the sale of energy drinks to minors advanced Thursday in the South Carolina House, two years after a 16-year-old Chapin boy died from drinking too much caffeine.
Sean Cripe, whose son collapsed in a classroom and died in April 2017, urged legislators to put children's health over the big money companies are making selling high-caffeine drinks to juveniles.
"These drinks are very dangerous," he said, noting the lobbyists who filled the room. "It makes you wonder why something hasn’t been done yet. It's all about the money, pure and simple. They're clearly drinks made for adults and we should treat them as adult beverages."
The legislation would fine anyone caught selling or giving energy drinks to minors under age 18 at least $50 per offense.
Energy drinks are defined as any beverage containing at least 71 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounces, plus herbal ingredients such as ginseng or guarana.
The bill advanced to the full House medical affairs committee despite opposition. Rep. Leon Howard, the medical committee chairman and the bill's main sponsor, asked the four-person panel not to block the measure, but rather let the larger committee consider it and weigh health professionals' conflicting testimony. Similar legislation failed last year.
"I'm not concerned about the pressure we're getting from soft drink companies. I'm concerned about patient safety," said Howard, D-Columbia, two weeks after local doctors testified in support of the bill. The Cripes family "can’t afford the high-paid lobbyists and high-paid guns to testify on their behalf."
Doctors representing beverage companies testified Thursday the drinks, such as Monster Energy, contain nothing harmful and have the same amount of caffeine as a medium-sized McDonald's latte.
"There are many misconceptions about energy drinks," said Dr. Ashley Roberts, a vice president with Intertek, an international testing company, and an adviser to Monster Energy since 2013.
"They do not contribute significant amounts of caffeine to teenagers," he said. "Teenagers get more than twice as much caffeine from coffee than energy drinks. Caffeine is caffeine."
Saying he wanted to "demystify" the herbal ingredients in Monster Energy, Roberts presented infant formula to show "highly regulated" foods have some of the same ingredients, though he could not say whether the amounts were similar.
"There's a lot of stuff that’s regulated that’s not safe for human consumption," said the panel's chairman, Rep. Chris Hart, D-Columbia.
Sean Cripes collapsed about 15 minutes after slamming an energy drink. He already had consumed a large Mountain Dew and a McDonald's latte within a two-hour span. The Spring Hill High School student died of an irregular heartbeat triggered by so much caffeine within such a short time frame, concluded Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, who supports the legislation.
"Something needs to be done. We're not trying to outlaw" energy drinks, Watts said Thursday. "These things can be very dangerous, especially to younger people."
Sean's parents said they talked to their son about energy drinks being unhealthy in terms of the sugar content but they never imagined such a dire result.
"There's a difference between being unhealthy and lethal," his mother, Heidi Cripes, said after the hearing. "It baffles me these lobbyists say, 'It's perfectly safe for kids,' and right on the can it says" not recommended for children.
Rep. Annie McDaniel, D-Winnsboro, cast the lone vote against advancing the bill, saying she worried how banning the sale to children would affect jobs in her rural district.
"I do not smoke cigarettes, but I wouldn't ban the sale to adults," she said. "We know for a fact they eventually kill people."
The bill has no chance of passing this year: Only six days remain on the legislative calendar. Debate could resume when legislators return in January.