Opinion: Energy Drinks Are Marketed as Healthy. This Puts Cambodians’ Health at Risk

Energy-drink advertising promoting prizes, in Phnom Penh on November 4, 2021. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
Energy-drink advertising promoting prizes, in Phnom Penh on November 4, 2021. (Michael Dickison/VOD)

Driving around Cambodia, energy drink marketing is inescapable. On roadsides throughout the country, billboards for brands like Boostrong, Carabao, Bacchus and more tout the positive impacts of consuming their beverages.

The demand throughout Cambodia is clearly large. Around 40 million cans of energy drinks are likely sold around the country every month, based on a 2017 market share estimate. The country imports energy drinks from many countries, especially Thailand and South Korea and in 2017, Cambodia alone accounted 24.1 percent of Thailand’s export share of energy drinks.

These drinks contain high amounts of sugar, caffeine and other ingredients with the goal of providing increased energy to the consumer, including taurine and herbal extracts. Those added ingredients may enhance the drink’s ability to provide a prolonged energy boost, but the overconsumption of these drinks also poses a serious health risk to the general population.

The majority of research suggests a strong link between consuming energy drinks and unfavorable health outcomes. These outcomes that have been seen in studies include higher stress, increase in aggressive behaviors, increased blood pressure, increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, poor sleep quality, stomach discomfort, tooth decay and kidney damage.

“The wide range of conditions that energy drinks can negatively impact was quite astounding,” the author of a review of these health impacts, Josiemer Mattei, an assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard University told Men’s Health magazine.

The high amounts of sugar is likely to blame for many of these health risks. An average 500-milliliter can contains roughly 54 grams of sugar, the review found, which goes well beyond what the American Heart Association recommends in terms of maximum daily sugar consumption for both men — 36 g — and women — 24 g.

But this isn’t how energy drinks are portrayed in advertising in Cambodia.

Advertisements in Cambodia target white-collar workers, blue-collar workers and young adults alike, in the hopes that all of these groups will increase their consumption. In one advertisement, an office worker is shown losing energy at his desk, falling behind on his work. With the help of Bacchus energy drink, we’re told he is able to keep up at the office, party hard with his boss at a nightclub, and then have enough stamina to drive his girlfriend on a road trip. In this ad, the “healthy” ingredients such as taurine and ginseng are emphasized.

In another ad, three young people receive enough strength to chase down a city bus from another brand of energy drink, Wurkz. In this ad, the health benefits of the drink are also mentioned, including the vitamins the drink contains.

Energy drink advertisements often use phrases like “refreshes,” “improve brain ability” and “boosting concentration” in an attempt to attract new customers and existing ones. This type of health-focused marketing sets this product apart from the marketing of other unhealthy beverages like alcohol and sugary beverages like soda. Unlike alcohol and soda, the goal of the marketing of energy drinks is to convince consumers that these drinks are beneficial for their health.

Energy drink companies frequently use indirect marketing tactics such as sponsorship of sporting and music events, pack designs and displays, branded merchandise, product placement, corporate-social responsibility activities, and new media technology campaigns.

In Cambodia, none of the energy drink commercials remind consumers of health warnings such as “drink responsibly.” Furthermore, no information is provided to inform customers about daily intake or the addition of a voluntary warning label to their products.

If the advertisements are not honest and fair to both customers and competitors, they should be considered violations of the Consumer Protection Law.

Through advertisements, customers are being led to believe, incorrectly, that these drinks are recommended by a variety of role models, including athletes and celebrities, that the products’ combination of caffeine, B vitamins and nutrients provide positive health benefits and increased energy.

Furthermore, opportunities such as cash prizes or material gifts such as phones or motorcycles are all part of marketing campaigns that encourage customers to buy more.

Could a reduction in such advertisements reduce the consumption of these products? The case study of tobacco, another product that causes negative health outcomes, but once featured prominently in advertising, may have a lot to teach us.

Before Cambodia’s Tobacco Control Law took effect, tobacco was normalized by advertising, marketing and endorsements, making it look like any other consumer product. Such commonplace advertisements made smoking appear more socially acceptable and made it more difficult to warn people about the dangers of tobacco use.

The Cambodian government approved the sub-decree on tobacco advertising ban in February 2011, which applies to different types of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship taking place in Cambodia.

According to the World Health Organization, such bans on marketing, advertisement and sponsorship have been successful at lowering tobacco consumption around the world. Around the world, such bans lower consumption by around 7 percent, but some countries have seen as much as a 16 percent reduction.

Should the government of Cambodia, therefore, outlaw energy drink advertisements in the same way that cigarette commercials are outlawed? Other countries have previously attempted it.

In 2014, the Saudi Arabian cabinet approved a range of measures, including a ban on all forms of energy drinks advertisement, a prohibition on distributors and marketing from sponsoring sporting, social, or cultural events, a restriction on the distribution and selling of energy drinks to all age groups and a requirement that these products carry a health warning on the label.

But examples like Saudi Arabia also show that these initiatives alone are not necessarily enough to keep people from overconsuming these products. Without an education campaign about the health risks associated with these drinks, consumers will still seek them out.

Fatemah Serif, a research analyst who spoke with an industry publication, Beverage Daily, on the Saudi energy drink market in the wake of the regulations, said: “[S]ince society is not well educated about the health risks posed by energy drinks, and the youth population appears to have access to these goods, they are unlikely to pay attention to such risks.”

Other countries have also taken companies to task for false promises made in their advertising. 

In the United States, for example, in 2014 the attorney general for Washington state, Bob Ferguson, filed a lawsuit against Living Essentials, the company that produces 5-Hour Energy. The case was based on the company’s marketing of the product, which claimed that energy drinks are healthy and that they are a doctor-recommended product. As a result, the manufacturer was fined $4.3 million for misleading advertising.

What’s clear from both of these examples is that if we are to reduce consumption of these products we will need a multi-faceted approach. Regulation of energy drink advertising is necessary because without it, consumers will continue to get erroneous and faulty product information. Warning labels would help customers to understand that overconsumption of these products is dangerous to their health. And education campaigns for youth would help young people to learn about health alternatives to these products.

The tide may be starting to turn on the production and consumption of these drinks. The market for these beverages is shrinking in Thailand as consumers turn to healthier alternatives. In response, at least one Thai energy drink brand announced this year that it is reformulating and launching a supposedly healthier version of its beverage, Commando, into the domestic market, with less sugar and more nutrients, in order to appeal to the country’s growing number of skilled workers.

Overall this is an issue the government of Cambodia must take seriously. This country’s health depends on it. Ignoring overconsumption of these sugary beverages results in losses both in terms of human resources and the national health budget. Energy drinks are known to be harmful to human health, but there is currently no legislation in Cambodia governing how much sugar is permitted in a specific serving size, and little regulation when it comes to what companies are able to tell consumers about their products.

Sorn Sovannara is a young researcher at Phnom Penh think-tank Future Forum. She is interested in innovative solutions to public health issues, and has a master’s degree in Public Management from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

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