Over the past two years, manufacturers of energy drinks have been putting out fires on various fronts. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Monster Energy – a beverage that Consumer Reports measures at 184mg of caffeine per 16 fl. oz. can (equivalent to about three cups of coffee)–had been linked with five deaths in the previous three years. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also claims that the number of emergency room visits connected to energy drinks increased by ten times between 2007 and 2011, spiking at 20,783. Symptoms usually include anxiety, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and headache. Critics also argue that even the stated amounts of caffeine are misleading, as an “energy blend” may include high amounts of sugar, “synthetic caffeine, the guarana plant, and tea extracts,” much of which does not register in tests as pure caffeine.
Another huge concern is that these drinks–with their stylish product design, slogans (“Party Like a Rockstar”), and promotional campaigns (the Monster Energy Drink Player of the Game campaign for high school athletes)–are geared toward minors, many of whose bodies are “more sensitive to caffeine’s effects than adults, as the New York Times observes in another article.
In 2013, Monster Energy–following in Rockstar Energy’s footsteps–made the bold choice to market its products as beverages, as opposed to dietary supplements, after a decade in business. One effect of this switch is that the company is no longer required to report injuries and deaths associated with the drink. This has upset many doctors and politicians, and we may see in this case another example of a corporation put in charge of policing the safety of the products upon which it depends to stay profitable.
Companies like Monster have gone to seemingly absurd lengths to maintain success in the marketplace. When a woman with a doctorate in nutrition wrote a newsletter article to parents of children in kindergarten through fifth grade (which mentioned no drinks by name) in Connecticut, Monster claimed that such “defamatory statements” “materially damaged Monster and its well-known brand.” The company “demanded” that Dr. Kennedy “retract and correct the statements within five days or face a lawsuit.”
While the FDA has yet to restrict caffeine in energy drinks, it has not been for lack of trying on the part of doctors. A group of 18 “doctors, researchers, and public health experts” urged the federal regulator to protect kids and adolescents from amounts of caffeine that are unsafe to their still-developing bodies, writing, “There is evidence in the published scientific literature that the caffeine levels in energy drinks pose serious potential health risks.” These risks have been sufficient to warrant Canada capping the amount of caffeine that can be in a single can, while other countries (like Mexico, France, and India) have taxed (or are planning to tax) these drinks more heavily than other soft drinks.
The father of a 15-year-old Canadian boy who died from an irregular heartbeat after drinking a can of Red Bull is incredulous that these traumatic events have not led to legislative response: “In the States, the amount of caffeine in some of those cans is huge, and you are drawing kids to it. It is disgusting.”