It’s 6pm at Phongmey, Trashigang. Ajang Nima enters into the bar with his six-year-old son and sits on the rickety bench at the corner of the room. He orders two pegs of rock bee and a bottle of red bull.
Meantime, two women enter in the bar. One woman is carrying her four-year old-daughter on her back. She joins Ajang Nima and the other woman asks for two bottles of beer, a plate of chili chops and a red bull.
The mother opens the cap of red bull and hands it over to the child on the back and a girl happily drinks it and when Ajang Nima’s son demands for chili chops on a plate, he tells his son to have his red bull “juice” first.
No matter what the price of a red bull is, parents in this remote pocket in the east do not mind giving their children red bull because they consider it a “juice” and an energy booster as portrayed on advertisements on TV.
This drink is especially popular among young people, in Phongmey. It is also being increasingly consumed by kids and teens are turning to energy drinks as a substitute for meals influenced by advertisement.
Ajang Nima said TV advertisements on red bull implied that drinking red bull had a beneficial effect on health, particularly brain function.
He added that parents have been giving this drink to children as a juice or energy drink for some time now.
A woman near Ajang said, when she tasted it, it give a medicine like flavor, more like a cough syrup. “I give it to my children as a medicine and my children love to drink it.”
A shopkeeper said red bull sells more than other juice items. Children prefer the energy drink to fruit juice.
Not a healthy drink
According to a health official, these drinks come with a serious downside. They are loaded with sugar and caffeine, both of which are linked to a slew of health problems in children, ranging from headache and stomachache to hyperactivity and sleep problems.
Many of children could face serious and potentially deadly side effects in the long run after consuming energy drinks and in rural areas people are still not aware of these drinks, he said.
Chithuen Phendey Association (CPA), an association that deals with drugs and addictions noted that people living in the rural areas are still not aware of the harmful effects of these energy drinks.
The Executive Director of CPA, Tshewang Tenzin said that with this addiction to the drink, many youth have shown involved serious side effects, such as seizures, irregular heart rhythms or dangerously high blood pressure, in westerns countries. “I am shocked to see our children under six or youth in our country consuming the beverage without knowing what they are drinking.”
He shared that this is all linked to addiction and advocacy is needed to fight this trend. “We also added red bull advocacy in those areas. “Parents were equally shocked.”
An energy drink, Red Bull and others are certified by Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) and Department of Trade and is sold in the market. ‘Red Bull’ entered the Bhutanese market in 2008, and is being sold for more than six years now without a single agent in the country.
According to the BAFRA and Department of Trade, Red Bull in the market is labeled in English. One can go through the contents in the product which will make it easier for a consumer to make a choice and it will be of help in deciding what is good and bad for them.
Many people living in the rural areas are not aware of the energy drink’s potential to have serious side effects. As a result, parents and siblings may leave the beverages accessible to children, unknowingly putting themat risk.
“If you ask most people, they’d say teenagers and young adults drink it, but children may be more susceptible,” said Tshewang Tenzin.
He said that labeling energy drinks with something similar to the health notifications that appear on cigarettes or alcohol could help reduce some of these unintentional exposures.
“Children and adults with underlying risk factors should also know the risks and be advised not to consume energy drinks.”
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Bhutan does not have a laboratory to check imported packaged foods and drinks. “In the 12th FYP, Ministry of agriculture is focusing on internalizing the market to live up to food and drinks sufficiency in the country instead of import,” he said.
The agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor said for Bhutan, it is important for people to understand that we definitely need to cut down our dependence on import of drinks and packaged food from India or other third countries. “To keep the better health of the people, we need to cut down on imported items,” he said.
He added the agriculture ministry is focusing on the reducing the cost of import of drinks and other food resources. “We have talked so much of sustainable development and self sufficiency of food resources and our mission is to work towards substituting and importing product with our own products,” he said.
Kinley Yonten from Thimphu