"Addiction to energy drinks may turn Big Beverage into Big Tobacco"
Friday, February 20, 2009
By Dave Moore & Bill Manville
BILL: Dave, when I see kids toking on all these caffeine-and-sugar-loaded "energy" drinks like Red Bull, it makes me uneasy. Am I being puritanical?
DR. DAVE: Caffeine is a drug of dependence, and withdrawal produces agitation - especially in the developing body of a teenager. They can end up in a hospital ER with heart palpitations. Like pot, caffeine is a drug, listed in the therapist's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a potentially serious problem at an intake of only 250 mg.
BILL: In her terrific new book, "Intentional JOY," Lynn Telford-Sahl (a licensed addiction counselor) says anyone taking in over 600 mgs. of caffeine a day can be considered an addict. "Martha drinks a lot of coffee," she told me about one of her patients. "On the way to work, she has a 'Venti'-sized coffee - 20 ounces and 180 mg. of caffeine. At 11 a.m., she tops off with another 12 ounces (210 mg. of caffeine), and a large diet Coke at lunch (16 ounces and 65 mg. of caffeine). And to fight her 3 p.m. slump, she has another 8 ounces of coffee, which is 160 mg. of caffeine. That's a grand total of 615 mg. of caffeine without her evening chocolate (40 mg.) that she eats while watching TV."
Lynn went on: "Martha suffers from insomnia, stomach problems, heart palpitations, and anxiety. She thinks she may need an anti-anxiety medication like the 'wonder drugs' they show in TV ads. When I told her perhaps she better consider cutting down on caffeine first, she became indignant. 'How can anyone be addicted to coffee? Addicts drink coffee to get off dope and booze!'"
DR. DAVE: There you have it: denial, one of the classic hallmarks of addiction. The energy drink market is based on delivering high dosages of caffeine. And it took them from nowhere in 1997, to $5.4 billion in 2007.
BILL: Back in the mid '80s, Jolt Cola's slogan was "All the sugar and twice the caffeine" - presumably comparing themselves to Coke or Pepsi. How come that never caught on?
DR. DAVE: Bill, we've conducted focus groups with young adults aged 15-25, asking first, "What do drugs, including alcohol, change for you?" and second, "What are some alternatives to that drug-induced change?" I imagine the ad men for Red Bull and drinks like that found out what we did: that the young market wanted A) mental stimulation and relief from the state of boredom, and B) to be glib and confident in their conversational abilities in social settings.
BILL: So Jolt flopped because their ads didn't suggest the ideal date was the GF and you, and a can of the stuff too?
DR. DAVE: Coca Cola's name for its new energy drink, Relentless, is right out of young adult jargon for the socially confident and energized peer.
BILL: A certain sexual undertone there too? You know Dave, I don't remember seeing the amount of caffeine listed on some of these drinks or cola drinks, for that matter.
DR. DAVE: The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require that caffeine dosage be listed. Britain, however, warns pregnant mothers not to drink the stuff, and Denmark bans them entirely.
BILL: Colleges and high schools seem to be swimming in the stuff. One study even showed that 20% of college students used these drinks for studying and fending off sleep.
DR. DAVE: The biggest public health red flag is the accelerating trend to mix these drinks with alcohol. Medical research out of Wake Forest University compared students who drank alcohol with those who mixed their alcohol use with energy drinks. The picture wasn't pretty. Energy drinkers were more than twice as likely to take sexual advantage of someone, drive with a drunk driver, and need medical assistance for an intoxicated injury.
BILL: It sounds like these energy drinks are riding the classic formula for addiction - denial of the negative effects in the service of chasing mirages of enhanced social power.
DR. DAVE: The health risk they pose is generating a lot of medical research. I just hope it will not be too little and too late. What we learned from the public struggles with Big Tobacco is that a mood altering drug with a huge advertising budget behind it can overcome FDA concerns. Big Beverage is predicted to push the energy drink market to $10 billion by the year 2010 - almost doubling their revenue in 2 years. There is nothing like having a legally addictive drug you can push under the guise of increasing youthful energy and social confidence.
Dr. David Moore is a licensed psychologist and chemical dependency professional who is a graduate school faculty member at Argosy University's Seattle campus. Bill Manville is a novelist and writer whose most recent work, 'Cool, Hip & Sober,' is available at online bookstores. Formerly the host of the No. 1 radio show 'Addictions & Answers,' he has been sober now for over 20 years.
Got a question about addiction? E-mail Dr. Dave and Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymity is guaranteed.
Need to talk to someone right now? Dave and Bill recommend the 24-hour addiction hotline at Caron Treatment Centers: 1-800-678-2332.
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