Another Reason To Steer Clear of Energy Drinks

They could be a gateway to substance abuse, a new study says

Tired? Bored? In need of a jolt? Next time think twice before you reach for that can of energy drink.

Yet another study raises public-health concerns about these highly caffeinated beverages. This latest one, published in the new issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, says that American high-school teenagers who consume lots of energy drinks are more likely to become abusers of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco in later life than classmates who are less-frequent energy drink imbibers or non-drinkers.

Research published six years ago linked energy drinks to stoking up aggression in college students, and drew a connection to those who take part in extreme sports and develop what the researchers called a "toxic jock identity." This is taking seeing oneself as an athlete into emphasizing hyper-masculinity and a wiliness to take excessive risks.

Energy drinks and shots contain high doses of caffeine to increase energy and alertness. They can also include high doses of sugars, vitamins and non-regulated plant and herbal extracts. High schoolers combine them with alcohol in the mistaken belief that energy drinks prevent the intoxicating effects of alcohol. In fact, they only mask them.

"The same characteristics that attract young people to consume energy-drinks – such as being "sensation-seeking or risk-oriented" – may make them more likely to use other substances as well, suggests Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath, who led the new study conducted by the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Nearly one in three of the 22,000 U.S. high school students surveyed for the study reported using caffeine-containing energy drinks or shots. More than 40% said they drank conventional soft drinks every day while 20% drank diet soft drinks daily. The youngest group surveyed, 8th graders, were most likely to consume energy drinks. Less surprisingly high-school boys were bigger consumers of energy drinks than girls.

The study is careful to make no cause-and-effect link showing that energy drinks lead to substance abuse in teens, but Terry-McElrath and her co-authors note "with their high caffeine and sugar content, energy drinks and shots aren't a good dietary choice for teens."

Nor are they a good choice for athletes. They contain too high levels of sugar to hydrate the body efficiently, nutritionists say. A broad review of the safety of energy drinks and their ingredients is expected from the Food and Drug Administration this spring.