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Energy drinks – what are the issues?

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the
issue of energy drinks. According to some of the press reports (and you never
really know how much of what is reported is actually true!), some health
experts are calling for energy drinks to be banned and admissions to emergency
departments due to these drinks have recently doubled.

Energy drinks have become increasingly popular over the past
few years and are a huge money-spinner for companies. There are now many brands available and there is great pressure to
increase market-share. In the
advertising that promotes these products we are told that these drinks will
give us an extra boost and there is often the suggestion that there is something
contained within the drink that you are not going to find elsewhere. Some
products do have additional ingredients (such as guarana), but for most of these
drinks it is the caffeine and sugar which are the active ingredients that give
these drinks their supposed ‘boost’.
Let me start by stating clearly that I believe that energy
drinks should not be consumed regularly by teenagers and certainly not by younger children. In addition, there should
be no products available that contain alcohol pre-mixed with energy drinks.
That said, I believe much of what is being written about these drinks is quite
For the most part, most of the issue around these drinks is
concern about caffeine intake. Caffeine is without a doubt the world’s
stimulant of choice. Most adults consume about 200 milligrams of caffeine on a
given day -that’s equivalent to about five cans of Coke, four cups of tea, a
large bar of chocolate, or two cups of instant coffee. If you like your coffee
more ‘up-market’, you may be consuming much, much, more. Some takeaway coffees
from the well-known franchises for example contain an amazing 550 milligrams of
caffeine. Just one cup will put you up around the level that many health experts
believe is of concern.
In small to moderate amounts, caffeine may have the
beneficial effects of stimulating alertness and decreasing drowsiness. However,
when consumed in large amounts, caffeine can cause a variety of negative side
effects such as nervousness, insomnia, muscle twitching, rapid heart rate,
irritability and trouble concentrating. Most experts believe that there is
little risk of harm when a person consumes less than 600 mg of caffeine a day.
If you can keep your caffeine intake level below that level you need not worry
about the negative health effects. If you are consuming more, you should start
to seriously consider cutting back.
Of course, we would hope that a child’s daily intake of
caffeine is much lower. It’s interesting to note the concern that some parents
have regarding energy drinks and their caffeine levels, while at the same time
they virtually ignore the fact that their child is regularly consuming a range
of other caffeine-based products, including coffee, sometimes at quite frightening
levels. I don’t know about you but I can’t remember any of my peers being
regular coffee drinkers when I was at school. Now I go to some schools and
there is a coffee machine available and in others, an actual coffee shop that
sells cappuccinos! When did that start happening?
So how much caffeine is your child likely to consume when
they have one of these energy drinks? If you believe the hype, you would think
that the product is almost all caffeine, however the reality is something
completely different. Yes, there are some energy drinks (particularly the ones
that come in the larger cans) that contain up to two or three times as much
caffeine as a cup of instant coffee, but on average they contain about 80mg,
slightly less than in your morning cuppa.
Of course, there are risks associated with energy drinks
(particularly if you misuse them – drinking three cans in a 30 min period is
obviously not a sensible thing to do!) but we do need to be careful that we
don’t overstate the potential harms. It would appear that most of these risks
are associated with inappropriate caffeine intake. Too much caffeine can lead
to a range of unpleasant effects whether your child drinks energy drinks,
coffee or tea!
Parent concern about these products, combined with
incredibly clever marketing by the manufacturers, has ensured that young people
have a real interest in energy drinks. As I have already said, there are a
great many myths about the amazing things these drinks are meant to be able to
do. Not only do they believe that they will give them some sort of short-term ‘high’, some also think they will help them to learn and study more
effectively. There is also another effect that a particular group of young people are
really interested in – the fact that mixing them with alcohol will allow them to
drink more and not get as drunk due to the stimulant effect of the caffeine.
It’s really interesting how the alcohol and hotel industries
have leapt onto this one … I’ve read articles recently that have demanded the
sale of energy drinks be banned in pubs and clubs because their combination
with alcohol leads to violence. Hard to believe but Perth has actually taken
this on board and energy drinks are no longer available on sale in the
Northbridge area (the main nightlife strip of the city)! What has happened is
that the alcohol and hotel industries have once again found a scapegoat for the
problems that alcohol causes – this time it is energy drinks. In Perth, there
were a number of ways authorities could go to reduce violence – the most
obvious would have been to reduce operating hours and the amount of time that
alcohol was available – no, that makes too much sense and is politically
problematic. Let’s say the problem is due to energy drinks … unfortunately I
guarantee the strategy will prove successful, not necessarily because violence
will decrease but venues will simply not report incidents as often ….
How can anyone with two brain cells really believe that it
is the caffeinated product causing the violence? As I said, I don’t think the
two go together and pre-mixed products should certainly not be available but
let’s not forget that it is the misuse of alcohol that is the problem here, not
that they’ve had a few caffeinated drinks helping them along the way!
I’m sure there are many who will not agree with me on this
issue. Certainly I’ve had many heated discussions over the years with people
attending my seminars on the topic. I accept that energy drinks are not simply
a ‘caffeine’ issue – but demonizing them the way we do, often overstating the
harms, is dangerous and simply makes them much more attractive to a young audience
susceptible to the advertising and marketing that accompanies these products.

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