The caffeine-loaded “energy drinks” that are marketed to teenagers certainly provide a massive jolt for the companies that make them, with last year’s sales of $9 billion projected to more than double next year. That makes it all the more important for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate them, as evidence suggests that the jolt from these products may be too great for some growing bodies.
The number of people going to emergency rooms for energy drink-related visits has exploded 10-fold since 2005, to more than 13,000 in 2009. This fall, the FDA has listed 18 deaths in which consumption of drinks like 5-hour Energy and Monster Energy may have been a contributing cause. In many cases, consumers have no idea how much caffeine they’re guzzling because more than half of the 27 top-selling brands tested by Consumer Reports either do not list the amount of caffeine or contain much more than listed. While a 16-ounce Starbucks coffee contains 330 milligrams of caffeine, Consumer Reports found 242 milligrams in just 1.9 ounces of 5-hour Energy, and 229 milligrams in just 2.5 ounces of Rockstar Energy Shot. Manufacturers insist that most people take only a small serving, but anecdotal reports suggest that some young people chug serving after serving, hoping for a stronger buzz.
When taken in moderation, energy drinks are no more lethal than an office coffee break. But the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network last year called energy drinks a “rising public health problem” as their use is often intertwined with alcohol, drugs, and driving.
The range of people using high amounts of energy drinks has spread from high-school test takers and college students pulling all-nighters to the military. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month reported that nearly half of all service members deployed in Afghanistan consume energy drinks, with 14 percent having three or more a day. Those who drank three or more a day reported more sleep disruption and were more likely to say they fell asleep during briefings or on guard duty. Based on that report, energy drinks are not just a public health issue, but also one of national security.
The FDA should, as a first step, require that all energy drinks specify the amount of caffeine they contain. And until the FDA can get to the bottom of the deaths that reportedly involved energy drinks, the government should ask companies to stop marketing to teenagers. Once upon a time, a cup of coffee was considered an adult beverage to be sipped slowly in an orderly beginning of the day. The disturbing effects of energy drinks being consumed from sunup to sundown and beyond by adolescents, college students, and soldiers in harm’s way are a wake-up call of their own.