Energy drinks are still killing kids in America

Abby Haglage

In January, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver urged the British government to take a stand against energy-drink consumption among children, calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to ban them for kids under 16. “The problem is much bigger than [caffeine],” Oliver says in a video posted to the Mirror. “It’s about the fact that so many kids are saying they’re addicted to them.”

On Oliver’s show, Friday Night Feast, Laura Matthews, his head of nutrition, highlighted the drink’s high sugar and caffeine content as problematic. “A typical energy drink contains 27.5g of total sugars in one 250ml can—equivalent to almost seven cubes of sugar,” Matthews said. “This is more than a child aged 7 to 10 should consume in a whole day!”

Within weeks of Oliver’s crusade, three major supermarket chains in the U.K. announced that they would now ID people buying energy drinks and refuse to sell to the products to anyone under age 16. It’s a huge step forward for the country, where 69 percent of adolescents have reported trying one in the past year alone.

But in the United States, where the consumption of energy drinks has been linked to multiple deaths, there remains little regulation of the products.

The drinks first hit the market as “dietary supplements” under the Food and Drug Administration, a classification that allowed makers to sell the products without revealing the ingredients — generally exceedingly high levels of caffeine and sugar, with additives like taurine, guarana, or ginseng.

Since entering the U.S. market in the late 1990s (after originating in Japan), they’ve exploded in America, yielding $25 billion in sales in 2016 alone. One of the fastest-growing beverage markets, experts now say the energy-drink segment is projected to reach $84.8 billion by 2025.

Red Bull, the first energy drink in the U.S., dominates the market, followed by Monster, and then smaller brands like Rockstar and Nos. With brightly colored ads and labels, the companies have been criticized for gearing their marketing to kids. Although the companies deny targeting youth, a 2014 study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that teenagers watched 30 percent more Red Bull and five-hour-energy ads than adults.

As the drinks began to take off in America, the negative health effects in the demographic guzzling them — namely, kids — began to skyrocket. As early as 2005, a toxicologist tracked 4,500 caffeine-related calls to poison control, half of them for people under the age of 19. By 2011, poison control centers were reporting fatalities from kids including — in that year’s report — a 14-year-old girl who “went limp while watching television after drinking from a large container of caffeinated energy drink.” The girl, who was rushed to the ER unconscious, did not survive, with her cause of death listed as “cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity.”

That same year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report warning pediatricians that energy drinks were “never appropriate” for kids, pointing to “harmful effects” on the “developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems” in children and adolescents who consume high levels of caffeine.

In 2013, it looked as though the days of unregulated energy drink use among kids might be numbered. In a searing 14-page letter titled “The Use of Caffeine in Energy Drinks,” 18 doctors, researchers, and public health experts from across the United States called on then-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to put pressure on Red Bull, Monster, and others to label their products and require that they provide evidence that the drinks are safe for kids.

Instead, as reported by the New York Times that year, the companies simply changed the classification of their products from dietary products to beverages. The change included a concession by energy-drink makers — in that beverages must include the caffeine count — but offered a bigger reward for them: Because their products were now considered drinks, they would not have to disclose potential injury or death related to their consumption.

The following year, the World Health Organization released a study stating that “increased consumption of energy drinks may pose danger to public health, especially among young people.” The authors suggested that countries regulate the levels of caffeine in the drinks, as well as create rules against young people buying them. “There is a proven potential negative effect on children [and] there is the potential for a significant public health problem in the future,” the authors concluded.

Since then, despite increasingly troubling reports, little has been done to curb the use of them in this demographic. Today, kids of all ages have free rein to consume drinks with sky-high levels of caffeine, with just one having the equivalent of 15 sodas. The effects, in some cases, still prove deadly. This past July, a 16-year-old in South Carolina died of a heart arrhythmia after consuming a mixture of soda, coffee, and energy drinks. 

Dr. Amelia Arria, the director of the University of Maryland’s Center on Young Adult Health and Development, was one of the 18 medical professionals who signed the letter in 2013 urging the FDA to ban the drinks for kids. “A lot of parents think, ‘Well, the FDA wouldn’t let it out there if it wasn’t safe,’” Arria tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But the burden of proof seems to be on the public health community to prove it’s not safe, rather than the burden be on the energy drink industry to prove that it is safe.”

In her most recent study on the topic, Arria found yet another potential negative impact of energy drinks on children: future drug use. “Several research studies and our own longitudinal work has clearly suggested that energy-drink use is related to the subsequent nonmedical use of prescription stimulants, alcohol use disorder, and use of cocaine,” Arria says.

While it’s vitally important that scientific studies on the issue persist, Arria suggests it’s impossible to overstate the value of British supermarkets’ banning them for kids. “Policy-level restrictions on access and availability are the most effective ways to change health risk behaviors,” Aria tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We’ve seen it with tobacco; we’ve seen it with alcohol. Those environmental-level interventions are very effective at reducing risk.”

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