Senate Democrats brought energy drink industry representatives before Congress, with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., comparing them to the heads of tobacco companies and faulting them for marketing beverages to children in a special appearance as witness at the hearing.

“We were all veterans of the tobacco wars,” Durbin said during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on energy drinks, in reference to colleagues who want to crack down on the industry. “We’re getting the same run around from these energy drink companies. They are openly, openly advertising to kids and denying it.”

“As the sale of energy drinks has grown, so has the alarming evidence that they pose potential health risks,” Durbin also said, noting that emergency room visits related to energy drinks jumped from 10,000 to 20,000 between 2007 and 2011. “Younger and younger people in America are exposed to higher and higher level of stimulants.”

Durbin is the second-ranked Democrat in the Senate, but the hearing was led at first by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and then Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who took over the gavel after Rockefeller’s opening statement.

“A number of companies are using marketing techniques highly appealing to teens, deliberately appealing to teens,” Rockefeller said. “The question I want to get at in this hearing is whether this is responsible corporate behavior.” Durbin and Blumenthal made clear they regard it as irresponsible, with Blumenthal suggesting Congress might increase regulations on the industry if the companies don’t voluntarily change their marketing practices.  Executives representing Red Bull North America, Rockstar, Inc., and Monster Beverage appeared at the hearing. “Voluntary compliance . . . would be a good step, and if further action is necessary we would consider it,” Blumenthal said. The American Beverage Association, which represents non-alcoholic beverage companies, responded to the hearing preemptively. “[W]hen you watch the news today – and every day  hereafter – and you find yourself reading an energy drink story, remember: energy drinks have been enjoyed safely by millions of people around the world for more than 25 years, and in the United States for more than 15 years,” the ABA’s Sip and Savor blog notes.