Doctors:  Limit Sale of Energy Drinks

Lebanon — Mikayla Clifford doesn’t make a habit of drinking Red Bull energy drinks. But when she drank three 8-ounce cans in one sitting several months ago, the highly caffeinated beverage did not exactly “give her wings” as the advertisements say.

“It was a bad experience,” she said.

Clifford, a 15-year-old Enfield resident, said she felt “really dizzy and way overhyper.” The high school sophomore is fortunate that nothing more happened. She has a heart murmur, and consumption of caffeinated energy drinks such as Red Bull have lately been blamed for some severe health side effects and even deaths of young people.

Last week, the American Medical Association called for a ban on the sale and marketing of energy drinks to people under the age of 18.

Products such as Red Bull, Monster Energy and 5-Hour Energy pose numerous health threats for individuals, particularly young people, due to excessive amounts of caffeine, health professionals say.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents get no more than 100 milligrams of caffeine a day. But one energy drink can include anywhere from 80 to 500 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of five cups of coffee. Especially for young people, consuming that amount of caffeine can have serious consequences, resulting in rapid heart rate, high blood pressure and even seizures, physicians say.

“In smaller patients, in weight and younger people, caffeine seems to be able to produce more adverse effects,” said Dr. David Nierenberg, chief of the section of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

The proposed age restriction comes after an increase in the number of patients, many of them teenagers, ending up in emergency rooms with complications related to consuming energy drinks.

The number of emergency department visits involving energy drinks doubled between 2007 and 2011, according to a federal report released this year. Many of those visits involved minors.

Last week, the mother of a teenager who died from cardiac arrhythmia filed a lawsuit against Monster Beverage, blaming his death on his regular consumption of the company’s energy drink. A similar lawsuit was brought against Monster last year by the family of a 14-year-old Maryland girl who died after consuming two 24-ounce cans of Monster.

The American Beverage Association, a trade group, has denied claims that energy drinks are causing people to die or end up in the hospital. In response to the federal report, the trade group said there was no evidence that energy drinks directly caused medical emergencies.

“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,” the group said in a statement after the report’s release in January.

Energy drinks may not be solely responsible for the ER visits, but the way these beverages are marketed and packaged — some in a shot-sized portion meant to be chugged — encourage unhealthy behavior without making clear the potential risks, physicians said.

“A lot of drinks don’t make it obvious how much caffeine is in the bottle,” Nierenberg said.

Energy drinks are often marketed to athletes and are major sponsors of sporting events, something that Larry Ruffing finds troubling.

Ruffing works with high school athletes as the fitness director of the Carter Community Building Association in Lebanon. He said he’s warned the young people he trains against putting so much caffeine into their bodies.

“It gets the heart racing sometimes way too high and then, if you’re doing an activity, their heart rate is already sky high,” he said. Athletes who consume energy drinks “are not going to perform very well because the body can’t keep up.”

Colby Drew, a 15-year-old football player at Lebanon High School, said he’s seen his teammates carry around energy drinks. He’s tried them before, but said they didn’t do much for him.

“When I drink them, I don’t notice a change,” he said. “I get really tired afterwards.”

The market for these drinks has moved beyond athletes. Young people drink them for all sorts of reasons besides an energy boost before a game.

Nick Beaulieu, a 15-year-old basketball player at Lebanon High School, said he and his teammates rarely consume energy drinks before working out. Most of his friends are careful about what they put into their bodies, he said.

Yet, he drinks a can of Monster every now and then — about once a month — mostly because he likes the taste and as a “pick-me-up” when he’s at work.

“I know they’re not that good for you,” he said. “They can increase your heart rate. That’s why I don’t drink them that much.”

But banning their sale to those under the age of 18 didn’t seem to make sense, he said.

“I don’t think it’s that severe that they’d need to ban them,” Beaulieu said. “It’s not like kids are chugging them down. Not like an every day thing.”

If teenagers were intent on buying energy drinks, they could get around the age restrictions just way teenagers figure out how to get cigarettes and alcohol, several teens said.

Bruce Bergeron said he doesn’t see many teenagers buying the drinks.

“From my experience, I don’t think people under 18 are the biggest users,” said Bergeron, general manager for Jake’s Markets, a chain of convenience stories in the Upper Valley.

Most of the people buying energy drinks at Jake’s stores are adults, many of them middle-aged, he said. They are the consumers who are making energy drinks an increasingly important part of his business. Energy drink sales have increased every year since Jake’s began selling them, he said, and account for 15 percent of all non-alcoholic beverage sales, he said.

“The people I talk to, who are middle-aged, they say it really works,” Bergeron said. “They do get energy.”

That may be true, but the jolt of energy they receive has consequences, said Lou DiNicola, a pediatrician at Gifford Medical Center and president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“I think we all use a little caffeine to wake ourselves up,” he said. “The flip side of that is that a high level of caffeine for kids is dangerous.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or