The Dangers of Energy Drinks
When you are feeling a little sluggish, do you grab a soda? A Starbucks latte? Or do you, like so many Americans these days, opt for the quick boost from an energy drink? While my particular weakness is for a warm cup of java, I really didn't believe that there was much difference in the physical effects of any of these choices. As I researched this post, I was shocked to discover how wrong I was. Several U.S. lawmakers are calling for more research, truth in advertising, and further studies into the health effects of the products peddled by the energy drink industry. Based simply on what a few hours of research with Google has revealed, I am surprised that more has not been done to protect consumers from what seems to be a dangerous product that has made use of every FDA loophole to escape regulation.
Energy drinks are not "beverages" so they are not regulated as such by the FDA. They call themselves "dietary supplements" which allows them to claim their specific ingredients as proprietary, avoid restrictions on the amount of certain ingredients, and provides them with a great deal of leeway in regards to their labeling and marketing.
Why the sudden regulatory interest?
Recently, the dangers of energy drinks have been in the national spotlight. Due in large part to the tragic death of a 14 year old Maryland girl who suffered a heart attack after consuming a total of 48 ounces of Monster energy drink over a 2 day period. Because of an underlying health condition, the product caused her to go into cardiac arrest and she never regained consciousness. She was taken off of life support three days before Christmas 2011. Her family is currently suing the company that produces Monster for contributing to their daughter's death. Thanks to the lawsuit and the efforts of several lawmakers around the U.S. (New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman; Chicago Alderman, Ed Burke; and 2 senators - Dick Durbin from Illinois and Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut), the FDA is taking notice. Energy drinks, like Monster, Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy Shot, and others, are popular alternatives to traditional energy boosters like soda and coffee but they contain much more caffeine than your average cup of joe and other ingredients like massive doses of Vitamin B-12, guarana, taurine, ginseng, and folic acid. The effects of these ingredients combined with each other and caffeine in these elevated doses has not been thoroughly investigated by the FDA - until now.
What is the government doing about this?
In late November 2012, the FDA sent a letter to Senator Durbin in response to his requests that they look closely into the energy drink industry. The letter confirmed that they were taking "science based actions" in order to determine the possible risks associated with the energy drinks. It also stated that the FDA is considering requiring product labels to inform consumers about the caffeine content and the risks associated with excessive caffeine consumption. The energy drinks are sold in stores next to sodas and juices, but because they classify themselves as "dietary supplements" and not beverages, they avoid having to label their products in the same way. The dietary supplement classification also lets them circumvent an FDA regulation that limits the amount of caffeine in sodas to 200 parts per million. A 12 ounce can of Coca Cola Classic has approximately 30-35mg of caffeine, while a 12 ounce can of Monster contains 4 times that amount by comparison. Monster is also more commonly sold in a 24 ounce size, increasing the caffeine amount to the same as 8 cans of regular cola. Shelly Burgess, an FDA spokesperson, told the Associated Press that they will continue their "ongoing investigation into the potential safety issues surrounding use of energy drink products."
Although labeling these products is one of the goals of the FDA, the senators are also concerned with how these products are marketed to young people. Between 2007 and 2011, the energy drink market exploded and profits for these companies soared into the billions of dollars. However, since 2007 the number of ER visits that were linked to energy drinks more than doubled to over 20,000. Additionally, Monster has been linked to 5 deaths while 5-Hour Energy Shots has been implicated in 13 deaths. People between the ages of 18 and 25 were the most common age group seeking such emergency treatment. A recent government report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration calls energy drinks "a rising public health problem," includes the above mentioned statistics, and suggests that they may cause seizures, nervousness, and raised heart rates. While no specific products were named in the report, the energy drink industry responded through the American Beverage Association stating "This report does not share information about the overall health of those who may have consumed energy drinks, or what symptoms brought them to the ER in the first place."
Indeed. But to be fair, the energy drink industry does little to warn people that underlying health issues could make their products dangerous for consumers. They do have a small disclaimer stating that their product "is not recommended for children or those with a sensitivity to caffeine." It is doubtful that adding an additional warning to their label at this point would deter many loyal customers. In fact, getting the word out about the potential hazards of consuming these products would most likely require a major advertising campaign or a government warning.
Not a new concern
The interest of the FDA may be rather recent, but concern in the medical community all over the world about these types of products is not new. Scientists from John's Hopkins have spent years evaluating the effects of caffeine and the impact that these high-caffeine energy drinks can have on a person's health. As far back as 2008 a report in the Drugs and Alcohol Dependence journal called for warnings to be added to the products' labels. Another study conducted in 2008 by the Cardiovascular Research Centre at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia found that energy drinks can increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke. In fact, their study revealed that even consuming one can of Red Bull could cause the blood to become "sticky", increasing the risk of dangerous clotting.
Despite the evidence that the drinks are unsafe, most consumers are unaware of the seriousness of potential dangers from these products. Caffeine can make you feel more alert, boost your mental and physical performance, and even elevate your mood. But it can also make you jittery, keep you from sleeping, cause rapid pulse or abnormal heart rhythms, and raise blood pressure. Safe limits of caffeine consumption are still being studied, but data suggest that most healthy adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams per day; pregnant women, up to 200 milligrams; and children, up to 45 to 85 milligrams depending on their weight. An occasional energy drink is probably fine for most adults, but many of these products are being marketed specifically towards kids and young adults.
A 2011 study published by the journal Pediatrics found that 46% of the nearly 5,500 caffeine overdoses in 2007 occurred in people younger than 19. The same study stated that the total amount of caffeine contained in some cans or bottles of energy drinks "can exceed 500mg (equivalent to 14 cans of common caffeinated soft drinks) and is clearly high enough to result in caffeine toxicity." Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that energy drinks "should never be consumed" by children or adolescents.
It isn't just the kids we should be worried about
Pediatricians aren't the only ones in the medical community concerned. Bruce Goldberger, the director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine was quoted as saying "It is very difficult to predict one's response to caffeine. Some people are more sensitive than others. Therein lies the problem. If someone has an undiagnosed medical condition, they may ingest caffeine not knowing it may have a deleterious effect, such as a cardiac arrhythmia, hypertension, or anxiety." A cardiologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, Dr. Byron Lee, M.D. says that the amount of research that has been done on the effects of energy drink use is far from sufficient. Even with a "recommended dose" people drink too much or mix it with alcohol. Underlying health issues - particularly heart conditions - can be fatal with a sudden jolt of caffeine according to Dr. Lee.
Although the FDA banned alcoholic energy drinks in November of 2010, consumers still routinely mix energy drinks with alcohol (Red Bull for example is often sold at bars mixed with vodka). Because caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant, when they are mixed and consumed together the body receives mixed signals that can result in heart attacks, cardiac arrest, cardiac arrhythmia, and even death. Another risk of combining energy drinks with alcohol is that the alertness caused by the energy drinks can mask the level of intoxication. Studies have proven that individuals who mix their spirits with energy drinks consume more alcohol. Among the industry's leading demographic, young adults ages 19 to 25, this is particularly troubling since their ability to gauge the level of their intoxication is poor to begin with.
It also isn't just the caffeineThe caffeine in these drinks may not be the only potential health hazard. Massive doses of folic acid have been shown to cause cancer, and even without the caffeine, the amount of vitamin B-12 contained in some drinks can cause cardiac events. The herbal ingredients have barely been studied at all at the dosage levels in these products so their effects on the body's systems are virtually unknown. Many consumer advocacy groups are concerned by these issues and the fact that the products are often advertised as performance enhancers to be taken before hitting the gym. Exercise increases blood pressure, raises heart rate, and floods your system with endorphins. When you combine that with the effects of these powerful stimulants, the results can be deadly.
Consumer Reports Director of Consumer Safety and Sustainability, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D. stated: "We support the FDA's investigation into the health effects of these products especially for vulnerable populations, including children, adolescents, those with heart problems, and seniors. We also believe that labeling is an important way to warn consumers of any potential dangers but that further action may be warranted based on the FDA's findings."
We agree, but we doubt that the energy drink manufacturers are going to willingly print "Beware our product has the potential to kill you" on their labels.
So what can be done?
Even if they were to add additional disclaimers, would that be enough to release them from liability? Cigarette and alcohol companies were required to not only include warnings on their products but also in their advertising. Would the target audience for these products, young adults between the ages of 19 and 25, even heed such warnings? If consumers are warned that a product could be dangerous, are the manufacturers still liable for injuries and deaths resulting from the use of their products? These are all questions that will no doubt be considered by the FDA as they research for themselves and review the research done by other non-government agencies. However, if the energy drink industry chooses not to properly label their products, then they are opening themselves up to a bevy of lawsuits where they could be found negligent in a wrongful deaths and injuries. In fact, there have already been a number of product liability lawsuits, wrongful death lawsuits, and class action lawsuits filed against industry heavy hitters like Monster, Red Bull, Burn, RockStar, Full Throttle,and 5-Hour Energy. We tend to think that if a product is unsafe, then it wouldn't be on the market. However, dangerous products are much more common than you might suspect and can take years to regulate properly. While it is our responsibility as consumers to be aware of what we are purchasing, it is the manufacturer's responsibility to ensure that we have the information required to make an informed decision, and the energy drink industry has failed on that front.
The Law Offices of Casey W. Stevens can help
If you or someone you love has been injured, become ill, or suffered any organ damage as a result of consuming Monster, Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy Shots, or any one of the hundreds of energy drink products on the market, call our office today for a free case evaluation. We can determine if you have a case and we may be able to help you recover compensation from the multi-billion dollar industry that is responsible for your injuries.