Science project evolves into awareness campaign

City Hill Middle School seventh-graders Emily Fine, left, and Amy Morrissey are part of a group of students that helped to craft a proposed House bill that would have restricted the sale of energy drinks to minors. While the bill did not pass, the students are moving forward in their efforts to raise awareness about the health impacts of energy drinks on minors. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — What started as a research project in science class for a group of City Hill Middle School seventh-graders turned into a real world civics lesson — one that is still ongoing.

In February, students presented state lawmakers their research findings about harmful effects of energy drink consumption by minors. They were testifying in favor of a state House bill their class helped draft that would have banned the sale of energy drinks to children 16 years old and younger. The bill fell two votes shy of moving out of the Legislature’s Committee on Children, where it was heard.

“I thought it was really cool that what started out as a simple science project evolved into something like this — that it gave us a chance to really represent what we believe,” said City Hill student Luke Deitelbaum, who delivered the group’s testimony, this month.

Deitelbaum’s classmate, Amy Morrissey, who was the group’s question-taker, said she and her classmates learned a lot about state government and how the process works.

While she and her classmates are disappointed the bill didn’t pass out of committee, Morrissey said, “We’re all really grateful we got to try in the first place.”

Deitelbaum, Morrissey and their peers see the committee’s vote as only a temporary setback. They’re moving forward with a public awareness campaign — surveying fellow students and their families on their knowledge about energy drinks and their side effects.

Students hope to use their findings to further families’ knowledge about the ubiquitous beverages. Students have also created pamphlets on energy drinks they hope to distribute to area medical offices and school districts.

Science teacher Katrina Spina said the group had received close to 300 responses to parent surveys. Spina said based on parents’ responses they’ve received, many admitted they knew little about the ingredients in energy drinks and the vast majority of parents signaled they would support an age-restriction on sales.

“It really was eye-opening to do something that could actually help the community. … In this project we actually were able to go through with our ideas and make it real,” City Hill student Emily Fine said.

City Hill Middle School seventh-grade students, from left, Sean Divino, Luke Deitelbaum and Ciana Chirkout are part of a group of students that helped to craft a proposed House bill that would have restricted the sale of energy drinks to minors. While the bill did not pass, the students are moving forward in their efforts to raise awareness about the health impacts of energy drinks on minors. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

While industry representatives testified that children represented a small number of energy drink consumers — too few to warrant a law — students are going to wait for the results of their surveys.

“We ask how many kids have had one, and if you did, have you ever felt jittery, anxious, have you felt any of these side effects?” student Sahirah Rivera said.

In his testimony, Dr. Richard H. Adamson, who spoke on behalf of the American Beverage Association against the bill during the hearing, stated that energy drink manufacturers to not market their products to children under 12 years old, and noted the drinks include voluntary advisory statements that they are not recommended for children or pregnant women. Adamson’s testimony stated that coffee beverages sold at coffee chains contain more caffeine than energy drinks.

Spina and her students believe families need more education about the beverages.

State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, who worked with the students to craft the proposed bill, said prior to the bill being put forth in committee, she told students it often takes quite a few times to pass a bill through the legislature and they should have a plan B.

That plan B is the awareness campaign.

“I’m really proud of these kids. If they couldn’t change the law, instead they’re going to change people’s perceptions and shine the light of what these energy drinks really are,” Linehan said.