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Are energy drinks the new gateway drug?

A recent study found teens who used energy drinks were two or three times more likely to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana compared with those who didn't use energy drinks.

Hashtag, selfie, energy drink...It's clearly a sign of the times that energy drink is now found in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "a usually carbonated beverage that typically contains caffeine and other ingredients ... intended to increase the drinker's energy."

"All the sugar and twice the caffeine": That was the Jolt Cola from 30 years ago. Energy drinks today are similarly marketed as providing mental and physical stimulation. They generally contain large doses of caffeine. For example, one particular energy drink contains 422 mg of caffeine in a 1.93-ounce serving; compare this with 162 mg of caffeine an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee or 72 mg of caffeine in a 12-ounce can of a popular soda.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents consume no more than 100 mg of caffeine a day, but some of them exceed this recommendation. Approximately 30 percent of students reported they consumed energy drinks or caffeine shots, according to a recent study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

The Food and Drug Administration is concerned that caffeine is being added not only to energy drinks but also to a growing number of products that appeal to children and teens such as chewing gum, jelly beans, oatmeal and even waffles! The World Health Organization is concerned that children can buy highly caffeinated products as much and as often as they wish.

More points to ponder:

  1. The amount of caffeine in energy drinks may be greater than expected. Besides caffeine added by manufacturers, some energy drinks may contain naturally occurring caffeine from plant sources, such as guarana, yerba mate, kola nut and green tea extract.

  2. The energy drinks may be packaged with more than one serving: In the United States, the FDA has identified 0.02 percent, or about 71 mg in a 12-ounce cola, as an amount of caffeine "generally recognized as safe." Some manufacturers of energy drinks include a greater amount of caffeine by including multiple servings per container.

  3. Since caffeine is not a nutrient, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks is not disclosed.

Is it time to consider energy drinks as a gateway drug? As defined by Merriam-Webster, a gateway drug is "a drug ... whose use is thought to lead to the use of and dependence on a harder drug..." Alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are traditionally considered the gateway drugs. With energy drinks, not only are almost a third of teens consuming them, but teens who used energy drinks were two or three times more likely to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana compared with those who didn't use energy drinks, according to the study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. This correlational study indicates that that there is an association between consumption of energy drinks and use of the gateway drugs. So yes, I think it's time.

My advice: I'm not saying that teenagers who consume energy drinks are definitely on their way to cocaine or heroin.  But shouldn't we all take the time to talk with our teens about alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and energy drinks…before they have the opportunity to pass through the gateway?

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