Sometimes an afterthought in research turns out to reveal a critically important finding. For Kathleen E. Miller, PhD, a sociologist and research scientist at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, this happened when she decided to add a couple of questions about energy drink consumption to a study examining behaviors in young athletes.
She says she explored that line of inquiry only because someone in her family had been consuming a lot of the products and was also experiencing some behavioral changes at the time. Since then, Miller completed another study (with an article in press in the Journal of Adolescent Health) showing that frequent consumers of energy drinks are about three times as likely as less frequent users or nonusers to have smoked or misused prescription drugs in the past year, and about twice as likely to have experienced problems with alcohol.
Miller is cautious about drawing broad conclusions about her findings, given that this area of research is so new. But you get the sense that the few researchers scrutinizing these increasingly popular legal products that are laden with high amounts of caffeine and other ingredients of concern might have hit on something.
“We don't have enough data to say that energy drinks should be in screening batteries for high-risk substance use, but I think that's the direction we're going in,” Miller says.
Certainly the best known of these drinks is Red Bull, and it is somewhat amazing to think that a product with such a firm status in American culture (think of those quirky animated commercials) has been around for only a little more than a decade. Miller says marketers of the products in this growing category tend to link the drinks with risk-taking activity. While most of this promotion would be considered relatively harmless, there have been cases at the extremes as well, including one involving removal of a product called “Cocaine” that was briefly touted as a legal alternative to the street drug.
The target market for the products tends to be the 18-to-25 group, Miller says, but use of the drinks is nearly as common among younger teens. Besides the high amounts of caffeine in some of the products, there is concern over the potential impact of often-used ingredients such as guarana and taurine, for which there is less research on physiologic effects.
Miller says another researcher is presently examining the growing practice of young people mixing alcohol with energy drinks, which they mistakenly believe helps counteract alcohol's negative effects. “Yes, you stay wide awake, but you're still drunk and impaired,” she says.
It is important to note that Miller considers it extremely unlikely that energy drinks will be found to be a “gateway” substance that leads users to alcohol or illegal drug use. “Although energy drink consumption can be used to predict other problem behaviors, it does not necessarily follow that drinking these substances is a gateway to more serious health-compromising activities,” she says in a news release from the institute. “It is entirely possible that a common factor, such as a sensation-seeking personality or involvement in risk-oriented peer sub-cultures, contributes to both.”
Yet Miller believes there is enough evidence to move addiction professionals, parents, and others to use energy drink consumption as a reference point in assessing and monitoring young people. And the drinks might offer just a preview of what could become available to youths, she says, as everything from energy candy to energy potato chips (“for active couch potatoes,” she quips) is now emerging in the marketplace.
Gary A. Enos, Editor Addiction Professional 2008 September-October;6(5):8