When New York City's mayor banned supersized drinks because of health concerns, it was rightly criticized as duplicitous since he was seen just weeks later presiding over the paean to gluttony, the annual Coney Island hot-dog eating contest sponsored by Nathan's Famous (NASDAQ:NATH). Apparently, engorging yourself on dozens of red hots is as healthy as a bowl of tofu and bean sprouts.
Such hypocrisy among politicians is nothing new, as they're always willing to mouth some shibboleth if it will garner them votes. Mayor Bloomberg is famous for his "do as I say, not as I do" attitude, as he's known to regularly put salt on almost all his food -- apparently even saltine crackers! -- which is why the beverage industry is worried that yet another ban emanating out of New York will gain traction, this one on selling energy drinks to minors.
There's no standard if it's not double
New York is quickly becoming the epitome of the Nanny State as Mayor Bloomberg banned trans fats, strong-armed companies into reducing salt levels in their products, required food-service vendors to post calorie counts on their menus, considered banning "happy hours," and did ban giving leftover food to the homeless because he couldn't monitor their fat intake.
Taking their lead from the city's temperance leader, Suffolk County health-care leaders are urging county lawmakers to ban sale of energy drinks to anyone under 19. Soon, Red Bull, Rock Star, and Monster Beverage's (NASDAQ:MNST) line of Monster drinks will go the way of cigarettes and alcohol. They're already positioning themselves for lawsuits down the road.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
Altria (NYSE:MO), Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI), and Lorillard (NYSE:LO) were required to place warning labels on their packaging and were banned from advertising on TV, while sales to minors were prohibited -- yet years later they were still attacked with class action lawsuits. Reynolds, in particular, was excoriated for its Joe Camel advertising that anti-smoking crusaders charged was really targeted at making smokers out of kids.
Energy-drink makers have already "voluntarily" adopted warning labels on their bottles, and health-care advocates want to prohibit the drinks from being marketed toward kids. How long before the ads are stopped and the lawsuits start?
As the American Beverage Association points out, a typical energy drink has less than half the caffeine content than that found in a cup of Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) coffee. If the sale of energy drinks to minors is banned, does Starbucks, Caribou Coffee (NASDAQ:CBOU), or even Teavana (NYSE:TEA) stand to be regulated next? Tea can have as much caffeine as a cup of instant coffee, and PepsiCo's (NYSE:PEP) Mountain Dew can have as much as regular black tea. There's a reason the ABA says it's a slippery slope, but as Mayor Bloomberg has proved, duplicitousness by politicians is an inherent trait, and they can simply ignore one favored class of beverage over another.
A fond farewell
Like the anti-smoking lobby, health crusaders often believe that so long as their cry is "it's for the children," then all manner of regulation and intrusion is permissible. The FDA is already on the case at the national level, investigating their safety after several deaths were reported. In particular, they point to 13 deaths associated with 5-Hour Energy and five deaths linked to Monster Energy. Just this past October, Monster saw its stock drop 10% after a 14-year-old girl died after consuming two 24-ounce energy drinks in a 24-hour period.
The fact that she was aware she had an underlying heart condition, and that the energy drink warns such people against drinking the beverage, didn't stop the family from filing a lawsuit against Monster.
Although the tobacco companies today are as profitable as they ever were, there was a period when investors wouldn't touch them. If social activists and lawmakers are able to get the proverbial camel's nose under the tent by banning sales of energy drinks, we may enter a period where investors won't want to touch Monster or other caffeinated-drink makers with a 10-foot pole.
Rich Duprey has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Monster Beverage, PepsiCo, Starbucks, and Teavana Holdings and has short JAN 2013 $47.00 puts on Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Monster Beverage, PepsiCo, and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.