The local market for energy drinks which contain large amounts of caffeine has grown remarkably over the past two years, but is expected to face regulations due to health risks.
Rep. Choi Dong-ic of the main opposition Democratic United Party is gathering fellow lawmakers' support to submit a revised bill next month to ban the sale of energy drinks near schools to limit children's access to the caffeinated beverages which are classified as soda under current rules.
"The bill calls for applying on the so-called energy drinks, or high-caffeine beverages, the same level of restrictions against high-calorie, low-nutrition foods which ban sales within 200 meters from schools and their television commercials during children's primetime," an aide to Rep. Choi told The Korea Herald.
Countries like France, Denmark, Norway and Argentina have banned sales of energy drinks, and the state of New York has launched an investigation into whether the makers of energy drinks are misleading consumers about the amount of caffeine they contain or the health risks they could pose.
According to reports on Tuesday, the New York attorney general in July subpoenaed the three companies that make 5-Hour Energy, Monster and AMP as his office investigates whether they violated federal law in promoting the drinks as dietary supplements rather than as foods, which are regulated more strictly.
Lotte Chilsung Beverage is set to start importing Monster, the world's second-bestselling energy drink after Austria's Red Bull, to the Korean market soon.
Korea has no regulations on the energy drinks, a term coined by the industry, other than requiring companies to mark "high-caffeine" on products that contain 150 milligrams or more of caffeine and add a warning for children, pregnant women and people sensitive to caffeine under a law that goes into effect in January.
The Korea Food and Drug Administration has no plans to look into whether the ingredients of the energy drinks are properly disclosed, according to Hwang Sung-hwi, the administration's director of food safety policy.
"The World Health Organisation continues to assess the toxicity of caffeine, which is categorized as an additive, but its harmfulness has not officially been proven yet," Hwang said.
"But since high doses of caffeine can cause shakes or other side effects in people with weak immune systems, the 'high-caffeine' labeling and the warning will be mandatory under the new rule. We are monitoring developments related to energy drinks around the world, and will take necessary steps once caffeine is confirmed to be harmful."
Energy drinks such as Red Bull, Lotte Chilsung's Hot Six and Coca Cola's Burn Intense are widely consumed by high school and college students, especially during exam periods, as well as workers who want to stay awake.
Mixtures of energy drinks with sports drinks and powdered vitamin C, known as "boong-boong drinks," are also popular among adolescents here.
Sales of energy drinks in Korea jumped over 960 per cent from a year ago to 39 billion won ($34.4 million) in the first seven months of this year thanks to the explosive sales of Red Bull, which has been imported since August last year.
With energy drinks becoming the beverage makers' top-selling items, food companies and even pharmaceutical firms are jumping on the bandwagon.
Hot Six, Red Bull and Samsung Pharm's Ya simply have "high-caffeine" marked on the cans without disclosing the amount of caffeine they contain. Monster, which is yet to be formally imported, is traded at 5,000 won per 475-milliliter can in Namdaemun Market with no indication on the amount of caffeine.
Rep. Choi said in a parliamentary health committee meeting last month that Red Bull, Hot Six and Hot Six Limited Edition contain 62.5, 60 and 86.4 milligrams of caffeine, respectively, much higher than the nation's beloved health tonic Bacchus (30 milligrams).
In Korea, children weighing 30 kilograms are recommended not to consume more than 75 milligrams of caffeine per day, and adults 400 milligrams.
Health advocates worldwide have voiced concerns over the use of energy drinks among teenagers, particularly when they are consumed with alcohol.
"Energy drinks which contain high levels of caffeine as well as taurine are bad for teenagers' health and can cause them to feel anxious, overly sensitive or emotionally disturbed," said Huh Hye-yeon, a staff member of Green Consumer Network in Korea.
"There should be warnings on the products that excessive intake by adolescents can be dangerous."