Issues Tank: As Popularity Steadily Grows, How Dangerous Are Energy Drinks?

by Connor Ryan
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Energy drinks in vending machine.

Connor Ryan, WFUV

The number of emergency room visits involving energy drinks has doubled, says recent report.

A visibly anxious 20-year-old man walked into a Washington, DC Area emergency room one day last week, complaining of severe chest pain. Upon further examination, his heart rate was confirmed to be abnormally high. He said prior to coming to the hospital, he had consumed “a series of energy drinks, and a cup of coffee,” Dr. Cathleen Clancy, associate medical director of the National Capital Poison Center, recalled.

It was three in the morning, and the symptoms were all-too-familiar.

“[He didn’t understand the energy drinks] were all contributing to his symptoms,” Clancy said in a phone interview. “And in order to treat him, basically, we just reassured him and told him what it was from and let him relax in the emergency department for three or four hours until the symptoms of the caffeine poisoning wore off.”

It’s just one example of a growing trend popping up around the country with increasing regularity.

The number of emergency room visits nationwide involving energy drinks doubled from 10,068 visits in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011, according to a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Consumption of energy drinks is a rising public health problem because medical and behavioral consequences can result from excessive caffeine intake,” the report, which was produced in conjunction with the Drug Abuse Warning Network, said. “A growing body of scientific evidence documents harmful health effects of energy drinks, particularly for children, adolescents, and young adults.”

The report also said there were more patients between the ages of 18 and 39 in emergency rooms after consuming energy drinks than any other age group.

“Although consumed by a range of age groups, energy drinks were originally marketed to appeal to youths and were reported to have been consumed by 30 to 50 percent of children, adolescents and young adults,” the report said. “Marketing suggests benefits such as increased energy and stamina, weight loss and enhanced physical and mental performance.”

Monster Beverage Corp., a large marketer and distributor of energy drinks, released a statement decrying the DAWN report for its inaccuracy.

“[The report] is highly misleading and does not support any conclusion that energy drinks are unsafe for consumers,” the statement says.

The American Beverage Association has also challenged the report saying in a statement, “[it is] more sensational than substantive.”

Still, Clancy says one of the biggest problems with energy drinks is the way they are marketed and labeled.

“I would love to see better labeling on these energy drinks, so that the idea is clearer as to where the energy is coming from, and not suggest that there are special vitamins or something in these drinks that’s giving kids energy,” Clancy said. “I feel like if the labeling was more appropriate, people would just adjust their ingestion accordingly.”

Nevertheless, the demand from college students, in particular, is high and colleges follow quickly behind to deliver.

At New York University, for example, energy drinks are available in cafeterias, vending machines, retail locations in the main student center and convenience stores in residence halls, according to Philip Lentz, director of public affairs.

“NYU sells energy drinks because they are very popular and because there is strong student demand,” Lentz said in an email. “In fact, caffeine-based drinks (including Coke and Diet Coke) are the most popular drinks not only at NYU but on many college campuses.”

Fordham University, where several brands of energy drinks and supplements are on campus for students to purchase, did not return a request for comment. Representatives from Columbia University, Manhattan College and Queen’s College also did not comment.

After conducting a joint study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute of Medicine have recommended that beverages available in schools be solely caffeine-free.

When asked about that recommendation, Clancy voiced her support.

“I’m totally opposed to instituting that kind of drug use in our children up through their teen years,” Clancy said. “I mean, if they’re tired probably they should be getting a better night’s sleep. I think it’s irresponsible to have [energy drinks] available on middle and high school campuses.”

Clancy said getting college campuses to be caffeine-free would be difficult.

For the full text of the DAWN report, click here.

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