Energy Drinks Are Sending Teens to ERs and May Be Killing Them, Too

Doctors say 5-Hour-Energy, Monster, Red Bull should not be marketed to kids.

Paula Morris’ 19-year-old son, Alex, habitually drank two cans of Monster energy drinks per day, for two years. After her son died suddenly, Morris took up a lawsuit against Monster Beverage Corp. on June 25, 2013.

Alex Morris died from cardiac arrest “while engaged in sexual activity with his girlfriend," according to the lawsuit. He consumed a Monster brand energy beverage prior to his death in July 2012.

Morris’ suit was filed on by the same attorneys representing the family of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, who died in 2011 following the consumption of Monster energy drinks. Monster has insisted its energy drinks were not involved in Fournier's death.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported that as many as five deaths between 2009 and 2012 could be linked to Monster's energy drinks. It also linked 13 deaths with the drink, 5-Hour Energy. According to the New York Times, these FDA reports were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Fournier’s mother, Wendy Crossland.

Most likely in order to avoid the bad press associated with allegedly killing teens, Monster rebranded its drink a “beverage” rather than a dietary supplement in March, a move which no longer requires the company to report any deaths associated with its drink. Instead, Monster is required to include caffeine content on the product’s labeling.

The issue of excess caffeine in popular drinks first made front-page news when the caffeinated alcoholic malt beverage Four Loko sent flurries of teenagers to the hospital. The disturbing trend led the company to drop caffeine from its products when the FDA stepped in, in 2010. Aside from its restriction of beverages that mix alcohol and caffeine following the Four Loko debacle, the FDA does not regulate energy drinks—despite the fact that energy drinks were involved in a startling 20,000 emergency room visits in 2011, a figure that more than doubled in size from 2007.

The recent slew of teen deaths led a handful of U.S. senators to call on the FDA to regulate the drinks last year, and for the first time the medical community is now calling for the regulation of energy drinks.

Eighteen doctors and scientists wrote a letter of concern to the FDA in March, pushing for regulatory action to protect children and teens from endangering themselves by consuming highly caffeinated beverages. The FDA responded in May with the launch of an official investigation of caffeine-containing food products consumed by children and adolescents.

The American Medical Association, representing 225,000 U.S. doctors, passed a resolution at its annual meeting in June asking the Federal Trade Commission to ban marketing of high-caffeine energy drinks to kids.

In response, Maureen Beach, a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, told Bloomberg news:

“We are disappointed that the [AMA] passed this resolution. Leading energy drink companies also voluntarily display total caffeine amounts—from all sources—on their packages, as well as an advisory statement indicating that the product is not intended (or recommended) for children.”

While the industry claims not to market energy drinks to kids, energy drink companies have created their branding and marketing around action sports footage and other high-energy imagery that naturally targets children and adolescents. Because of this, Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s city attorney, sued Monster for marketing its drink to kids as young as six this May. The company had preemptively sued the city on April 29. Monster, Red Bull and Innovation Ventures, maker of 5-Hour Energy, also face consumer class actions questioning claims made about their products.

Research proves that marketing to children younger than 12 is deceptive and therefore unethical. According to the US National Library of Medicine, evidence suggests children are cognitively incapable of appreciating the commercial purpose of television advertising until they are at least eight, and “are particularly vulnerable to its persuasive techniques.”

Physician and AMA board member Alexander Ding sent an email statement to Bloomberg summarizing AMA’s reasons for speaking out about energy drinks:

Energy drinks contain massive and excessive amounts of caffeine that may lead to a host of health problems in young people, including heart problems. Banning companies from marketing these products to adolescents is a common sense action that we can take to protect the health of American kids.

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April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.