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Energy drinks are shown in a store on Monday in Montreal. The Canadian Medical Association Journal says the highly caffeinated drinks are potentially addictive. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

The Canadian Medical Association Journal is voicing alarm over the increasing popularity of highly caffeinated energy drinks among kids and teens.

"Caffeine-loaded energy drinks have now crossed the line from beverages to drugs delivered as tasty syrups," senior editors of the journal said in an editorial released Monday.

Health Canada should require producers to use clearer labelling and should bar promotion targeting the child and teen market, the authors argue. They also suggest parents need to be informed about the caffeine content of the drinks their kids are consuming.

"We need to educate parents and kids that these things are addictive or are potentially addictive. They carry concerns with use," Dr. Paul Hebert, the journal's editor in chief and a contributor to the editorial, said in an interview.

The editorial says some energy drinks contain the caffeine equivalent of 10 cans of cola and notes that the effects of high concentrations of caffeine in kids are a cause for concern. Excess caffeine can cause nervousness, irritability, rapid heart rate and sleeplessness, which itself can cause a domino effect of problems in kids.

Children not targeted: beverage producers

But Refreshments Canada, an umbrella organization representing beverage producers, took exception to the editorial, suggesting it contains a number of inaccuracies.

Alan Grant, director of communications, said the group's members — beverage heavyweights like Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola — don't target children in their advertising.

"Our members adhere to responsible marketing practices," he said.

A statement issued under the name of association president Justin Sherwood also disputed the journal's suggestion that energy-drink labelling needs to be updated to carry warnings about potential side-effects from their consumption.

"These energy drinks are intended for adults and clearly indicate on the label that this category of beverage is not recommended for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women and people who are sensitive to caffeine," the statement said.

But others supported the thrust of the journal's editorial.

"Parents and independent experts know that kids need to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less white flour, added sugar and trans fat-laden oils and sugary soft drinks to have fit, healthy bodies and minds," said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

"Governments have to do a better job of protecting kids from clever marketers who have no compunctions about flogging chemical buzzes and mildly addictive junk foods."

Toronto dietitian Rosie Schwartz said parents need more help figuring out what is in products like energy drinks, the kind of help clearer labelling rules from Health Canada could provide.

"Kids with behavioural problems, with hyperactivity, kids who may have sleep problems and mood disorders and behave in a hyperactive way — how much of that is due to food and beverage choices?" Schwartz said.

Health Canada suggests kids age10 to 12 shouldn't consume more than 85 milligrams of caffeine a day, which is about a can or two of cola. With younger children, the recommended maximum is even lower: 45 mg for children age four to six and 62.5 mg for children age seven to nine.

The department doesn't have a specific recommendation for kids 13 and older, saying it doesn't have enough data to calculate one. It suggests a weight-based approach be used, with teens not consuming more than 2.5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight per day.