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We are now paying $5 billion a year - some of us, anyway - for hyper-caffeinated energy drinks. The ads for them target teens and young adults. And in a paper published today in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers argue that energy drinks need to be labeled with warnings. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: Grad student Samir Taylor(ph), who's studying to become an architect, doesn't know how much caffeine is loaded into his energy drinks. But he does know which brand he buys when he's looking for a quick pick-me-up.
Mr. SAMIR TAYLOR (Architecture Student): Yeah, Red Bull. I like Red Bull actually. They jack you up.
AUBREY: Asked for a hunch about how many cans of Coke it would take to match the caffeine content of an 8-ounce Red Bull...
Mr. TAYLOR: Maybe three?
AUBREY: That would be your guess.
Mr. TAYLOR: That would be a guess, yeah.
AUBREY: One Red Bull to three Cokes.
Mr. TAYLOR: Yes.
AUBREY: Turns out, he's right on the money. Actually, it's about two and a half Cokes. Now, Samir is an experienced caffeine user. So, over time he's learned to tell how much caffeine he's getting without looking at a label. But Roland Griffiths, who's a caffeine researcher at Johns Hopkins University, says teens are into energy drinks too, and they're getting a punch they're not able to predict.
Dr. ROLAND GRIFFITHS (Professor of Behavioral Biology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine): A Coke delivers about 34 milligrams of caffeine, and a Red Bull delivers about 80, and then we have other products like Wired and Fixx that deliver over 500 milligrams. And that's in the range that you'd expect caffeine overdose symptoms.
AUBREY: Things like heart palpitations, feeling jittery or anxious, and insomnia, especially in adolescents who haven't developed a tolerance to caffeine. Anthony Kovatch is a pediatrician in Pittsburgh. He says sleep disturbances are really common among teens. Stress and anxiety do play a part, but he says kids don't realize that caffeine does too.
Dr. ANTHONY KOVATCH (Pediatrician): Nobody comes in and says I can't sleep at night because I'm taking too much caffeine.
AUBREY: But after he talks to them about their habits and how many energy drinks they're consuming, they make the connection.
Dr. KOVATCH: You find in a lot of these kids with sleep problems, they tend to take those drinks in the early evening to study and then find out that the effects last longer than they anticipate.
AUBREY: At least four to six hours. A recent survey by the Pennsylvania Medical Society found that one in five 20-somethings say they used energy drinks in high school or college to stay awake longer, to cram for an exam or write a paper. Given the doses and the popularity of these drinks, Roland Griffiths says the Food and Drug Administration should require labels on the bottles.
Dr. GRIFFITHS: I would like the amount of caffeine to be labeled.
AUBREY: And Griffiths says he also wants cautionary warnings about side effects, similar to those mandated for over-the-counter stimulant products.
Dr. GRIFFITHS: The FDA has a whole series of warnings. If you're going to buy NoDoz, it tells you how much to use and what doses you shouldn't exceed.
AUBREY: Griffiths is not calling for the end of caffeine. He says most of the world's population consumes it regularly. And for most adults, it's not a problem.
Dr. GRIFFITHS: What we have here is a product that's being aggressively marketed to a vulnerable population in a way that perpetuates a message that drug use is good for functional ends.
AUBREY: The American Beverage Association does not see it this way.
Dr. MAUREEN STOREY (Senior Vice President, American Beverage Association): A warning label or something like that is premature.
AUBREY: The ABA's Maureen Storey says no one has documented that energy drinks harm teenagers. And she says it's not hard to find out how much caffeine is in them. If the information isn't already on the drink, you can easily find it online. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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