MACHIAS, Maine — A Washington County public health coalition is working to educate young people about the potential hazards of highly caffeinated “energy” drinks.
Washington County: One Community is targeting use of the caffeine-based stimulants by those under age 18. The effort was sparked by a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration report that implicated the energy supplements consumed as drinks, tablets or inhalants in 18 deaths and one non-fatal heart attack during the last four years, including the death of a 14-year-old girl.
“We recently had an incident [in Washington County] where a young person purchased an inhalant form, called Aeroshots, which were used before a middle-school soccer game, with some players choosing to snort it,” said Dustin Foss, the local agency’s youth and community outreach coordinator. “While I’m not aware of any young person locally being debilitated by these energy supplements, our concern is that, as more young people use them, something like that will happen. There are a lot of undetected and undiagnosed heart defects, and we’re trying to forestall any serious problems.”
Energy drinks can contain up to 500 milligrams of caffeine, Foss said, the equivalent of about 14 cans of cola.
“Stimulant containing beverages have no place in the diets of children or adolescents,” she said. “A soda typically can have as high as 71 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounce container for the Federal Drug Administration to consider it safe. But caffeine in energy drinks often ranges from 160 to 500 milligrams a serving.
Foss said there is a little-known state law that prohibits the sale of energy drinks to anyone under age 18. That law prohibits sale to minors of any product that contains 80 milligrams or more of caffeine per eight ounces. Fines for under-age sales can range from $50 to $500.
“Going into this, we didn’t know there was such a law, and we’re finding that store owners aren’t aware of it either,” she said. “And these products are being marketed to young people, packaged to look cool and placed at eye-level on the shelves near sodas and juices. While the companies that make these products say they are targeting 18- to 30-year-olds, that’s not who is buying them.”
Caffeine is not a problem for many people, beyond causing jitteriness and other mildly unpleasant effects, she said.
“For others, who are more sensitive to its effects or consume more than four cups of coffee per day, particularly children under the age of 18, it can lead to fast heart rate, nausea, muscle tremors and irritability, according to the Mayo Clinic. In extremely high doses, as provided by the energy drinks, people can experience abdominal pain, vomiting, tremors, heart attack and, of course, death.”
Foss said consumption of caffeinated energy supplements has increased substantially in the past 10 years and now comprise 20 percent of the total convenience store beverage market, with “Red Bull” and “V” accounting for over 97 percent of sales in what’s become a multimillion-dollar industry. Foss said Beverage Digest, a trade publication, reports that sales of energy drinks in the U.S. grew an estimated 16 percent last year to $8.9 billion, a record level.
Foss said the ongoing effort to raise local awareness of the potential dangers of the supplements will include increasing public awareness that they cannot legally be sold to those under age 18.
“But beyond that, we are going to attempt to get the law changed to include a ban for people under 18 on all energy enhancers,” she said. “We will also be working with county school superintendents to have school policies include prohibition of energy drinks on school property, just as those policies now ban alcohol.
“Kids that are exposed to these enhancers need to make informed decisions, and they, and their parents, need to know why they are making those decisions,” Foss said.