The new problem drinkers

Today, more and more teens direct their energies to a lesser-known form of substance abuse. And this behavior, although it may sound harmless, poses some even greater dangers to teens than more old-fashioned forms of substance abuse.

In fact, according to a federal report released earlier this month, ER visits linked to this growing problem doubled between 2007 and 2011.

So what are all these teens tempted to try?

Energy drinks.

They may sound harmless–and they’re even made to sound beneficial–but they’re not.

In fact, “energy drink” sales in this country now reach about $10 billion dollars a year. And the industry aggressively markets to teens and young adults. And their marketing strategies seem to work all too well! In fact, one-third of teens and one-half of young adults ages 18 to 24 say they regularly use energy products.

No wonder these companies can afford splashy primetime adds during the Super Bowl!

The ads claim that these drinks give you more energy. That they make you feel more awake. And that they boost your attention span. You get all this they say without taking an actual drug. But at least when you take an actual drug, you do it knowing there’s a risk for harm. With an energy drink, teens think they’re taking something harmless, but they’re not.

Caffeine is the central ingredient in most energy drinks. It may sound harmless enough…indeed caffeine drinks have been around for many hundreds of years. The difference is, today’s energy drinks may contain more than twice the caffeine you get in a regular cup of coffee. In fact, many energy drinks contain up to 250 mg of caffeine in just a small serving.

By comparison, an 8-ounce cup of standard brew coffee has only about 100 mg of caffeine. Plus, with coffee, you get many other beneficial ingredients, such as antioxidants.

Colas and soft drink beverages contain much smaller amounts of caffeine–only about 35 mg–per serving. When I was in college, those who really wanted a kick could grab a Jolt Cola instead of a Coca-Cola. It infamously had “all the sugar and twice the caffeine.”

But further back, Coca-Cola itself was not always so benign. It hit the market in 1885 and the original formula included cocaine and alcohol. By the early 1900s, Coke only contained caffeine…and lots of it.

Back then, the FDA considered the excessive caffeine to be a public health hazard. So in 1911, the FDA, led by chief chemist Harvey Wiley, raided a Coca-Cola plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They seized 40 kegs and 20 barrels of concentrated syrup.

The federal case against Coca-Cola dragged on for years. Eventually, the company lowered the caffeine content and the Feds dropped the case. Plus, by 1919, the federal government had another “public enemy number one.” The Volstead Act prohibited the manufacture, sale, or consumption of alcohol.

But concerns about too much caffeine have come full circle. Last year, the FDA returned to investigating caffeine over concerns about its safety. Much of the concern over caffeine stems from its link to sudden, unexpected deaths in healthy young people.

One family in Maryland brought a lawsuit against Monster Beverage Corp. after their 14-year-old daughter died suddenly of cardiac arrest. The day of her death, the girl drank just two 24-ounce Monster Energy drinks.

Here’s the problem…

Most teens just don’t realize, like a lot of things, the danger in consuming these beverages. And companies use sneaky tactics to hide the caffeine content of their drinks…

For example, they add “natural ingredients” to make their beverages sound healthy. Some of the popular additives are gingko, milk thistle, taurine, guarana (a plant source of caffeine), B vitamins, licorice, and ginseng.

But companies have an ulterior motive for adding these natural ingredients. It allows some companies to classify their product as a “dietary supplement” rather than a food product. And supplements aren’t required to disclose caffeine content on product labels.

Last year, Consumer Reports tested 27 different types of energy drinks for caffeine content. They found caffeine levels ranged from about 6 mg to 242 mg per serving. But some cans contain more than one serving. And most teens typically think of a can as one serving. So they may consume more than double the amount of caffeine without realizing it.

Plus, 11 of the 27 drinks did not disclose caffeine content on their labels.

In fact, Monster Beverage Corp.–one of the largest manufacturers of energy drinks–does not post caffeine content on its cans. In response to the Consumer Reports study, the company said it doesn’t post the information because “there is no legal or commercial business requirement to do so, and also because our products are completely safe, and the actual numbers are not meaningful to most consumers.”

In contrast, OTC caffeine products like NoDoz and Caffedrine must always provide the dose information on their labels and packages.

Even greater danger arises when combing an energy drink with alcohol. This can be particularly deadly. Caffeine is a stimulant. It can mask some of the cues you use to judge levels of intoxication and impairment. You feel alert, but your blood alcohol level is still very high.

In addition, energy drinks and alcohol can cause dehydration. And dehydration can block your body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, which will increase the toxicity. Therefore, the next day, you can expect a brutal hangover, if not worse.

Tomorrow you’ll learn more about how the body responds to caffeine. And how little excess it really takes before a “harmless” energy drink turns deadly.