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Power lobbyists hired to fight effort to ban energy drinks in Chicago

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Updated: March 2, 2013 6:24AM

The beverage industry has hired a pair of heavy-hitting lobbyists to try to kill a powerful Chicago alderman’s proposal to ban the sale and distribution of high-caffeine energy drinks.

Victor Reyes, the former Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) chieftain who once served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political enforcer, is representing the American Beverage Association.

A partner of Cook County Assessor and Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios is lobbying the City Council on behalf of 7-Eleven.

Both men hope to snuff out a surprise proposal by Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) to ban the sale and distribution of high-caffeine energy drinks in Chicago — not just to minors, but to consumers of all ages.

“Our goal is to work with the concerns the City Council has, but taxes and bans [are not the answer]. It’s a slippery slope. When does it stop? It’s a legal product. What happens if you start banning all sorts of legal products?” Reyes said.

“A lot of aldermen we’ve met with in the [Health] committee understand that there are other ways to deal with the concerns other than an outright ban.”

Reyes was serving as Daley’s director of intergovernmental affairs when the City Council voted to ban foie gras. The widely ridiculed ordinance was subsequently repealed after Chicago became an international laughingstock.

Asked Monday whether a Chicago-only energy drink ban would be similarly ridiculed, Reyes said, “That’s one problem plus jobs. The signal that it sends to the business community is not necessarily a positive one — not at a time when Ald. Burke and others are trying to attract jobs.”

Reyes was asked what concessions the beverage industry was willing to make to ease Burke’s concerns about the popularity of energy drinks among teenagers and young adults and the dangers those drinks can pose to their health.

“I’ve spoken to the chairman. He’s agreed to talk to us about it. Until we know what the real concerns are, it’s hard to say, ‘Here’s what we can put on the table,’ ” Reyes said.

In an e-mail, a spokesman for Berrios said the assessor’ s lobbying partner, former State Rep. Sam Panayotovich, is representing 7-Eleven.

Burke could not be reached for comment.

Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) has proposed that minors be prohibited from purchasing energy drinks, but only to get the industry’s attention and educate parents and young people about the potential dangers.

On Monday, Cardenas reiterated that his ultimate goal is better labeling — not a ban that would set a “bad precedent” economically.

“Retail stores wouldn’t know what to do. Plus, a lot of people are mixing energy drinks with other things. You could ban one thing and have a problem with another. It never ends,” he said.

When Burke introduced his blanket ban, he cited the popularity of drinks such as Red Bull, Monster, Full Throttle and 5 Hour Energy among young people.

But, his ordinance is worded in a way that would still allow Red Bull to be sold, generally targeting higher-caffeine drinks. Some of the others could still be available, but not in their larger sizes or more potent concentrations.

The ordinance defines energy drinks as “a canned or bottled beverage which contains an amount of caffeine exceeding or equal to 180 milligrams-per-container and containing Taurine or Guarana.”

Under that definition, the typical can of Red Bull would apparently still be available in the city. The company’s website lists the caffeine content in an 8.4-ounce can as 80 milligrams, 100 mg. short of the ordinance’s threshold.

Monster’s 16-ounce can would just make it at 160 mg., but the 24-ounce Mega Monster can (240 mg.) would not.

5 Hour Energy Drink’s 2-ounce bottle (138 mg.) would be allowed, but the Extra Strength version (207 mg.) would not.

Full Throttle’s 16-ounce can (200 mg.) would be banned.

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