Food

Energy Drinks Are Deadly for Young People

Energy drinks have a lot more caffeine than coffee, and it's easy to overdo it.


Photo Credit: Photographee.eu

We’ve all been there. Making a late-night trip to the gas station to pick up that miracle elixir—Red Bull, Monster, 5-Hour Energy—guaranteed to help you stay awake and reach your deadline. At the time, the reward seems worth the effort. But have you considered the potential cost?

That’s the question a South Carolina family is facing after recently losing their 16-year-old son. Davis Cripe collapsed in class after drinking an energy drink, a large Mountain Dew and a latte, and later died. The local county coroner, Gary Watts, said his heart was unable to cope with the amount of caffeine. "These drinks, this amount of caffeine, how it's ingested, can have dire consequences and that's what happened in this case," Watts told CBS news.

Cripe is not the first teen to fall victim to the ill effects of energy drinks. From 2005 to 2011, reported the Washington Post, trips to the emergency room due to energy drink-related issues rose from 1,494 to 20,783. A concerning number of these visits involved children under 6.

Another statistic from American Heart Association research shows that between 2010-2013, over 5,000 people contacted U.S. poison control centers due to sickness caused by energy drinks. Over half were children who experienced seizures, irregular heart rhythms or dangerously high blood pressure because they weren’t aware of the dangers posed by the high caffeine content in energy drinks 

By law, nutrition labels are not required to include information related to caffeine content. This is a problem when you consider that many varieties of energy drink contain “a lot more caffeine that an 8-ounce cup of coffee,” said Consumer Report’s deputy health editor Gayle Williams. Energy drinks are commonly marketed to children, with consumption of these beverages “increasing dramatically in the last two decades,” according to a study conducted by the International Journal of Health Sciences.

Another 2015 study published in the journal Beverages further linked this trend to health complications. “Young consumers are at a particularly high risk of complications due to hazardous consumption patterns, including frequent and heavy use,” concluded the study’s authors. 

Multiple efforts have been mounted in recent years to address this situation. Back in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report that explicitly stated, “energy drinks pose potential health risks because of the stimulants they contain, and should never be consumed by children and adolescents.” Two years later, the American Medical Association adopted a policy that supported a ban on marketing energy drinks to children under 18 years of age. But has it made any difference?

The short answer is no. The Food and Drug Administration did manage to impose a 71-milligram limit on the amount of caffeine in a 12-ounce soda, but failed to apply this same requirement to energy drinks. The FDA has not justified this regulatory distinction, which is worsened by the fact that energy drinks aren’t required to provide labels carrying their caffeine content.

“Children, young adults and their parents should be aware of the potential hazards of energy drinks,” wrote the authors of the study published in Beverages. The authors made several suggestions regarding ways consumers, and more ambitiously, federal regulators can address this problem. 

  • “Physicians should routinely inquire about energy drink consumption in relevant cases, and vulnerable consumers such as young persons should be advised against heavy consumption, especially with concomitant alcohol or drug ingestion,” they wrote.
  • A series of public education campaigns to demystify some of the bold claims made by energy drinks (e.g. boasts of “improved physical, or cognitive performance") and make consumers more aware of the potential health hazards.
  • An eventual limit to the actual caffeine content of energy drinks and implementation of a legal age limit.
  • Prevent brands from marketing energy drinks to young people of all ages. 

Overall, the problem and the solution both come down to transparency. Consumers are largely still unaware of the caffeine content in energy drinks, and the risks posed by drinking these beverages in large quantities. With better labeling, it may be possible to reduce the number of energy drink-related emergency room visits.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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