The long term effects from excessive and chronic consumption of energy drinks is unknown, but with marketing ranging everywhere from skateboarding to billboards in racing videogames, kids certainly get the impression that they should drink them. Monster and Red Bull even use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to help advertise with a “grassroots” approach. It is also unclear as to whether teens who favor energy drinks when they’re younger will be more apt to mix the drinks with alcohol as they get older. “My concern is that the people seeking out these types of drinks want to be thought of as extreme,” said Jill Temple, PhD and Associate Professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Buffalo. “We have no idea what the future could hold for them.”
“The real danger of energy drinks is how they’re marketed,” said Temple. “Increasing performance, getting a rush, they play off of extreme sports, and they really have that kind of image.” The image is working. The Simmons Research Group, a found that the amount of American teenagers regularly consuming energy drinks, meaning they have one most days, jumped from 18 percent to 31 percent between 2002 and 2006.
The problem actually stems from defining an energy drink, said Evatt. “The number one concern is that energy drinks vary widely in the amount of caffeine they contain.” A can of energy drink can contain anywhere from 50 to 505 milligrams of caffeine, more than five times the amount of caffeine in one cup of coffee. “The companies that manufacture these products deny that they advertise to children,” said Nicole Pennington, Associate Director of nursing at Ohio University. “But since the market is not regulated, there has been aggressive marketing to adolescents with promises of psychoactive, performance-enhancing, and stimulant drug effects.”
One study showed that undergraduate college students who drank energy drinks were more likely to engage in “risk-taking behaviors.” The researcher, Kathleen Miller, PhD, from New York University at Buffalo, defined risk-taking behaviors as increased alcohol consumption, violence, and unsafe sex practices. The Marin Institute, an advocacy group against abuse by the alcohol industry, calls energy drinks a “gateway substance” to a more dangerous lifestyle.
Because energy drinks are still so new, no one has done a comprehensive study on how they affect children and teens in the long term. Even Temple said that five years ago when she started researching her paper on caffeine use in children, she was “shocked with how little we knew about children and caffeine.” Adding that people tend to extrapolate and assume that the same thing happens in adults that happens in kids, “but that’s not usually the case.”
With kids as young as 12 reporting regular caffeine use from energy drinks, people worry about the potential health effects of consumption. The CDC says that high caffeine use, along with TV and computer use, correlates with obesity rates in children. Multiple studies from major universities confirm that poor sleep quality contributes to obesity in children. Other negative effects of prolonged caffeine use include increased anxiety, panic attacks, bowel irritability, and insomnia.
Lack of sleep doesn’t just affect growth in adolescents; it also has been associated with mood disorders, obesity, lower self-esteem and poor school performance. Since high caffeine use can directly affect sleep patterns, “The irony is that it’s not new information,” said Amy Wolfsan, PhD, sleep expert and Associate Professor at Holy Cross. She said that people have known for years about the correlations between sleep and caffeine use but that very little research has actually been done regarding children and caffeine use.
Since energy drinks have become so popular, healthcare providers have seen reported examples of extreme overuse. The National Association of School Nurses reported anecdotes that their staff who had seen caffeine related symptoms ranging from hyperactivity in class to dehydration, accelerated heart rates, and anxiety. Less commonly, they reported seizures, acute mania, and strokes. “We know caffeine in moderation is probably fine,” said Temple, “The question is what happens when these kids are using a lot of caffeine.”
The anecdotal evidence was so strong that in 2008, a group of 100 scientists and doctors signed a letter to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking for regulation. Currently, energy drinks are labeled as “dietary supplements,” even if they aren’t marketed as such, and therefore companies aren’t required to list the amount of caffeine they contain on their label. The signatories called for the FDA to not only require warning labels on energy drinks cans, but also to limit the amount of stimulant they can contain.
Many countries have gone farther than limiting the ingredients in energy drinks. France, Norway, and Denmark all subjected Red Bull to bans at one time, but the bans in Norway and Denmark have since been lifted. Red Bull only contains as much caffeine as a cup of coffee: it seems positively tame when compared to a drink called Wired X505, which contains more than ten times the caffeine.. Wired X505 is only available in the US, since America has some of the most lax regulatory requirements when compared to other countries -- it can be purchased at most gas stations and convenience stores around the country. The Canadian Medical Association goes as far as to say that “caffeine loaded energy drinks have now crossed the line from beverages to drugs delivered as tasty syrups.”
If pressure from the medical community continues to grow, the US might follow in step with its international neighbors and put stricter regulations on energy drinks. Even though Norway and Denmark lifted their bans on Red Bull in 2009, they did so after applying regulations on sales and marketing. With the dangers of alcoholic energy drinks making front-page news across the country, it may only be a matter of time before the FDA focuses on the dangers of energy drinks themselves. Until then, Temple reminds everyone to be cautious users. “We need to know a lot more before we let our kids go out and drink energy drinks all day.”