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Red Bull, Rockstar and Now Pimp Juice? Buzz-Infused Energy Drinks are a Window Into Young Men's Fantasies

Why pay $3 for the same buzz that could be brewed for pennies at home? Because of all the virility and vigor promised by exotic-sounding ingredients.

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How stupid do energy-drink makers think young men are?

How stupid are young men?

These drinks don't buy themselves.

But hey: After a while, it's not entirely a choice. Like liquor, cigarettes and crack, caffeine is habit-forming. A landmark 2004 study led by Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Roland Griffiths found that even one standard cup of coffee a day can produce a caffeine addiction whose withdrawal symptoms include headache, fatigue, depression, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and "flu-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting and muscle pain or stiffness." The symptoms' severity increases with the amounts of caffeine regularly consumed, but abstinence from even 100 milligrams a day can induce them. The study also found that, just as in other addictions, the dread of experiencing withdrawal symptoms prompts caffeine drinkers to drink more caffeine. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the master resource used by millions of medical professionals worldwide, cites four caffeine-induced conditions: caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, caffeine-induced sleep disorder and caffeine-related disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).

Bill Aaronson was a caffeine addict. This spokesman for the Caffeine Awareness Association favored not energy drinks but 64-ounce convenience-store Pepsis and Cokes.

"I thought it was normal. I couldn't figure out why I was having heart palpitations and anxiety. I couldn't figure out why, after feeling alert and energized, I would then feel so depressed." Neither could his doctors, Aaronson says. Finally he made the connection, and quit -- a torturous process.

CAA is currently working on a project that would result in accurate reportage of actual caffeine quantities in energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages.

"These drinks' labels are misleading. We're trying to create a way for people to find the truth," Aaronson says.

The risk of caffeine addiction starts in utero and continues through breastfeeding, he adds. "If the mother is drinking Red Bull, the baby's drinking it too. Children are the vulnerable ones. To a kid's eyes, coffee doesn't come in attractive packages, but energy drinks do. These cans look like video games, and that's done on purpose. Kids think they're cool, and kids are the ultimate victims."

Because the FDA classifies nearly all energy drinks as food, no age restrictions are required for their purchase or use. A 6-year-old could buy Ammo or Vamp. As "food" products, energy drinks are not required to reveal on their labels how much caffeine they contain. Only those few drinks that market themselves as dietary supplements require age restrictions and special labeling.

"FDA regulates so-called energy drinks as food just like any other food product on the market," explains the agency's press officer, Michael Herndon. "As such, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, foods must be pure and wholesome, contain no harmful or deleterious substances, and be truthfully labeled. The term 'energy drink' is not specifically defined in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Therefore, these types of drinks are difficult to fit into one category because it depends on how they are marketed. ... FDA has not addressed what the terms 'energy' or 'energizer' mean and what characteristics a product or ingredient must possess in order to use the terms."

Clever. What is this thing called energy? When I was a university freshman a few decades back, energy was a euphemism for cocaine. My roommate clipped the word "energy" out of newspapers and magazines and glued the clippings to her desk and cupboard doors. From a wealthy ex-boss, she received weekly cocaine parcels in the mail, fat Ziploc bags hidden in padded Hallmark cards. When these arrived, she phoned her friends and giggled, I've got energy! Want energy?

And those who did were hip in that hilarious, sexy, skinny, stimulant-chiseled way, their thighs not meeting in the middle. In those days, borders were clearer between drugs and not-drugs, high and not-high. Energy drinks are now neither and both. Their clinical-sounding and exotic ingredients convince some drinkers that they're radical and pharmaceutical, the cutting edge of brain science, on par with MRIs. ("It’s Rx for the Cortex," reads the homepage for Antimatter drinks. "It hones and sharpens the mind.") The same ingredients convince other drinkers they're rock stars. Or pimps.

One energy drink is actually called Cocaine. The name appears in powdery white on bright red and blue cans. "Do you want to see more of our spokesmodel Michelle?" asks Cocaine's Web site. "Do you think Michelle is awesome?"

Megacorporations have leaped into the game: Coca Cola, Starbucks, Hooters and Playboy have all introduced energy drinks. According to the John Hopkins study, annual worldwide energy-drink consumption  increased 17 percent between 2005 and 2006. Sales grew a whopping 39 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the leading market-research firm Mintel. Nearly 500 new energy-drink brands were launched worldwide in 2006, with 200 new brands launched between mid-2006 and mid-2007 in the U.S. alone. Mintel's prognosticators attributed a subsequent drop-off in sales to the fact that construction workers and other blue-collar workers, a former industry mainstay, have been losing their jobs.

Where, then, to find new fans? Hmm: Who else besides construction workers might want to get hyped and amped?

College students are the energy-drink industry's ace in the hole. Relatively undaunted by the collapsed economy, they quaff the drinks to stay awake while studying and after all-nighters, just as their predecessors popped No-Doz. Half of the students surveyed in a 2007 East Carolina University study drank at least two cans or bottles at a stretch while studying: This much caffeine, the study read, "can easily far exceed the amount necessary to promote cognitive functioning."

But it's not just about functioning. It's about "having fun, kicking butt and making a difference," as a past campaign for Boo Koo Beverages promised. Energy-drink companies sponsor campus concerts and parties and have helped students make a national craze of energy-drink cocktails such as the Jager bomb (Jagermeister and Red Bull) and the Grassy Knoll (apple vodka and Monster). Crunk!!! has a running competition for "Crunktail" recipes; past winners include the Crunker and the Crunkapolitan.

 
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