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Energy drinks are killing young people. It’s time to stop that.

Pat Crawford, adjunct professor in public health and researcher at the Nutrition Policy Institute | June 7, 2017

Co-authored by Wendi Gosliner, a project scientist at the Nutrition Policy Institute.

Last week, a 16-year-old tragically lost his life after consuming an energy drink, a soda and a latte — drinks routinely consumed by and often intensively marketed to youth — all within a few hours. According to the coroner, the boy’s heart simply couldn’t cope with the amount of caffeine in the beverages.

The teen wasn’t the first to pay a terrible price for drinking popular beverages that are commonly (but mistakenly) considered safe, but he must be the last. The government must take steps to reduce caffeine levels allowed in energy drinks; to clearly provide recommendations for the safe caffeine consumption for children and adolescents; to ban the marketing of energy drinks to youth of all ages; and to help educate the public on the health risks of high caffeine intake.

energy drinksCaffeine is a strong and potentially dangerous stimulant, particularly to children and adolescents. When people think of the drug, they generally think of coffee. But what is less widely known is that a single serving of an energy drink may contain much more caffeine than a cup of coffee. While the caffeine in a serving of coffee can range from 60 mg all the way up to several hundred mg in an extra-large espresso drink, these coffee varieties are not specifically marketed to teen-agers in the way that energy drinks are.

Making matters worse, consumers do not know the risks of the high levels of caffeine in an energy drink. Nutrition labels are not legally required to include information about caffeine content — a critical and potentially life-threatening omission. Many energy drink manufacturers have initiated voluntary labeling initiatives, but they are not consistently applied and they do not provide adequate information to ensure consumers appropriately interpret the level of risk presented by the beverage. Labels are a first step — necessary, but not sufficient.

Unlike coffee, energy drinks are widely marketed to adolescents, putting them at risk of extreme caffeine overload with potentially devastating cardiovascular and neurological consequences. From 2005 to 2011, energy drink-related emergency room visits increased from 1,128 to 20,783. This included high rates of unintentional exposure in children younger than 6 years old. In 2013, the American Medical Association adopted a policy supporting a ban on the marketing of energy drinks to youth under the age of 18 years, saying, “Energy drinks contain massive and excessive amounts of caffeine that may lead to a host of problems in young people including heart problems …”

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on the appropriateness of sports and energy drinks for children and adolescents. They concluded that “…energy drinks pose potential health because of the stimulants they contain, and should never be consumed by children and adolescents.”

Still, energy drink consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, even as soda consumption has begun to decline. Given the danger energy drinks pose to children and youth with no potential benefit to their health or wellbeing, the marketing and advertising of these products to young people must stop.

Because manufacturers add caffeine to energy drinks, it is subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive. In fact, the FDA has recognized the risks of high caffeine consumption and imposed a 71-milligram limit on the level of caffeine that may be added to a 12-ounce soda. However, no limits currently are imposed on the caffeine content of energy drinks, and containers easily can contain 200 to 300 milligrams or more. There is no justification for this regulatory distinction. Youth drinking energy drinks need as much protection as those drinking Coke or Pepsi.

Adolescents — the prime consumers of energy drinks — are entitled to information that can save their lives. The FDA’s limits on added caffeine in colas should also be applied to energy drinks, and the amount of caffeine added to an energy drink should always be listed on its nutrition label, including a distinct front-of-package warning for drinks with caffeine levels greater than those allowed in soda. Information based on scientific testing should also be made available on the effects of energy drink additives, such as guarana and taurine, that can increase the potency and increase the effects of caffeine.

As the sales of energy drinks rise every year, the need to act becomes even more critical. Steps to protect the health of our children are both feasible and necessary. The problem has been identified; now is the time to act.

Originally published in the Washington Post; this version has been updated.

Comments to “Energy drinks are killing young people. It’s time to stop that.

  1. Energy drinks have harmful side effects and should not be sold to children under 18 years of age. Energy drinks are considered a “dietary supplement” and have very little regulation by the FDA. Energy drinks are available in 140 countries and half the consumers are children, adolescents, and young adults (Ibrahim 1416). Caffeine intake for a child 12-18 years should not exceed 100mg/day (Seifert et al. 566). Just one can of Monster (160 mg) exceeds the limit and can cause caffeine toxicity. Some symptoms include headache, anxiety, tingling of arms and legs, confusion, seizures, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia and death. Children drink energy drinks in place of meals, sleep, or to get a “buzz”. Studies show that energy drinks have been linked to children playing video games all night. ER visits from 2009 to 2011 increased from 13,114 to 20,783 from caffeine consumption (Seifert et al. 567). And 47% of ER visits are children under 6 (Seifert et al. 567). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that “energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents’ due to their stimulant content.” (Pomeranz et al.). Since very little evidence supports any benefits from energy drinks, children should not be purchasing or drinking them.

    Seifert, Seifert, et al. “An analysis of energy-drink toxicity in the National Poison Data System.” Informa Healthcare, 2013, pp. 566-574.
    Pomeranz, Munsell, et al. “Energy drinks: An emerging public health hazard for youth.” Journal of Public Health Policy, vol. 34, issue 2, 2013, pp. 254-271.
    https://search-proquest docview/1347690787/4766A3328E534A88PQ/3? accountid=39001.
    Ibrahim, Nahla and Iftikhar, Rahila. “Energy drinks: Getting wings but at what health cost?” Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, 2014, pp. 1415-1419.

  2. Are there studies showing that energy drink actually cause death in youth? Countless highschool kids drink much more caffeine in one sitting than the kid in the linked article, and do not die. Maybe he had a heart condition to begin with.

  3. A friend about age 55 dies recently from consuming two Monster “666” energy drinks of a heart attack. Sad.

  4. Hi Pat,

    I completely agree with you, that too many energy drinks are loaded with sugar, caffeine, and harmful artificial ingredients that can harm one’s health and even life when consumed in excess.

    It saddens me to see that the awareness of this issue only surfaces when a precious life is lost tragically.
    I also agree that youth and young adults such as college students are at a high risk as many marketings target our young population.

    Thank you for bringing this to light, and I found it informative and resourceful.

    I often blog about the danger of certain foods marketed as “healthy” foods but are really not. Not all are detrimental like energy drinks, but the danger is in the false/misleading marketing and PR efforts.

    Thanks for sharing!


  5. The article is about caffeine bad for young people but the only stat is uses to back-up this claim does not break down age or if the caffeine was mixed with alcohol. Emergency room visits is also very broad considering how protective parents are for children. Death by caffeine is extremely rare.

    “From 2005 to 2011, energy drink-related emergency room visits increased from 1,128 to 20,783.”

  6. This post could be a life saver for me. I work at SEO Elites Ltd and before I go in, I will consume a can of Redbull. During recess, I will have another can from the freezer. Little did I know about any damage it could bring to my life. I am really glad I stopped here. Right now as I am writing, I am drinking a can of Monster. Thank you so much for such an elaborate research-driven post.

  7. These energy drinks are a joke. Any they do briefly work, all have horrible crashes soon after that can cause may problems. Some people even end up having to fightDUIcharges because they appear intoxicated when they get pulled over by police.

  8. Challenge in court the FDA’s irrational regulatory distinction that caffeine is a food additive in soda but caffeine is not a food additive in energy drinks.
    A food additive is a food additive!
    Make the courts force FDA to stop this semantic hypocrisy which as Professor Crawford states endangers uninformed/reckless youth.

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