Schoolchildren will be barred from buying ‘damaging’ energy drinks, under tough new plans unveiled by Theresa May tonight.
Selling caffeine-heavy products like cans of Red Bull to under-18s is set to be made illegal.
The drastic move comes amid fears that the drinks are helping fuel obesity, tooth decay, bad behaviour and sleep problems among young people.
They were hailed by campaigners including TV chef Jamie Oliver – but critics said the government was obsessed with banning things.
Research has found two thirds of young people aged consume energy drinks, and a quarter of 6-9 year-olds.
But one 250ml drink can contain around 80mg of caffeine – as much as a strong cup of coffee and equivalent to nearly three cans of cola.
Some also have 65 per cent more sugar than regular soft drinks.
A voluntary code has seen a number of bigger retailers stop selling the products to minors.
However, ministers have decided to act after concerns that smaller shops were flouting the advice – with cans in multibuy deals as cheap as 25p each.
Measures put out for consultation say a ban would apply to drinks with more than 150mg of caffeine per litre.
The Red Bull website says it contains 80mg of caffeine in a 250ml can – equivalent to 320mg per litre.
The consultation asks for views on whether the ban should apply to under 16s or under 18s.
But a government source said: ‘It is a question of how, not whether, we do it.’
Mrs May said: ‘Childhood obesity is one of the greatest health challenges this country faces, and that’s why we are taking significant action to reduce the amounts of sugar consumed by young people and to help families make healthier choices.
‘Our plans to tackle obesity are already world leading, but we recognise much more needs to be done and as part of our long-term plan for the NHS, we are putting a renewed focus on the prevention of ill-health.
‘With thousands of young people regularly consuming energy drinks, often because they are sold at cheaper prices than soft drinks, we will consult on banning the sale of energy drinks to children.
‘It is vital that we do all we can to make sure children have the best start in life and I encourage everyone to put forward their views.’
Celebrity chef and anti-obesity campaigner Oliver said: ‘We have a massive problem with kids and energy drinks.
Theresa May, pictured in Nigeria today, has announced a consultation on the tough plans
Celebrity chef and anti-obesity campaigner Jamie Oliver welcomed news of the restrictions
‘Too many children are regularly using them to replace breakfast.
‘Teachers from across the country have told me how their lessons are disrupted in classrooms because of these drinks, packed with stimulants.
‘The energy drinks industry has never thought these products were suitable for children.
‘They even say ‘not for children’ on the labels. The sale to kids should be stopped as soon as possible.
‘It’s really great news that the government is announcing their intention to stop selling these drinks to kids.
‘I’m sure parents and health experts across the UK will happily tell the Government this is the right thing to do.’
Shops that flout a ban could be hit with punishments similar to those for selling cigarettes – a £2,500 fine. The consultation officially opens tomorrow, and will last 12 weeks.
Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, said: ‘Children do not need energy drinks to get through the day – they offer nothing more than unnecessary sugar.
‘Restricting the sale of these drinks is another bold step needed to turn the tide on childhood obesity.’
Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: ‘There is no evidence that energy drinks have any nutritional value or place in the diet of children and young people.
It’s therefore worrying that so many young people are buying these drinks at low prices and consuming them on a regular basis.’
However, one senior Minister complained that government policy has been reduced to ‘a ban a day’.
‘Every day, something else banned. It’s just so depressing,’ they said.