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Crowley: More warnings needed about caffeine in energy drinks

Suffolk County Legislator,William Spencer, at Riverhead Legislative Auditorium,

Suffolk County Legislator,William Spencer, at Riverhead Legislative Auditorium, Riverhead. (June 19, 2012) Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport), who led the effort to ban the marketing of energy drinks to youths, plans to testify Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee in Washington D.C. on the health risks that energy drinks pose to minors.

Spencer, who is a physician, claims that consuming high amounts of caffeine can lead to heart problems in young people, and therefore the drinks should not be marketed to children. His assertion has recently gained support from The American Medical Association.

Earlier this year, Spencer’s bills, which restrict the sale of energy drinks to minors in Suffolk county parks and prevent companies from mailing coupons or free samples to minors, were signed into law by County Executive Steve Bellone.

The legislature made the judicious choice of barring purveyors of these drinks from promoting them to kids, but stopped short of banning them completely. That’s best.

As a minor, I have succumbed to energy drink manufacturers’ promotion tactics: what male teenager can resist being handed a free Red Bull by a women who had more skin showing than not?

Also attractive to teens are the aggressive names: Monster, Red Bull, AMP, and Full Throttle. Energy drink companies attract a young audience by sponsoring most extreme sporting events. Monster also sponsers young athletes, like 18 year old skateboarder Nyjah Huston.

These drinks are safe in moderation, but like anything, too much can have harmful effects on your body. Caffeine overdose can cause dizziness, vomiting, heart palpitations and even, cardiac arrest.

The Food and Drug Administration said it is safe for adults to consume about 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. They have yet to rule on a safe amount of caffeine kids under 18 can consume in a day, although it is generally accepted they should limit themselves to 100 milligrams.

So how much caffeine is in energy drinks?

To put it into perspective, a 12-ounce serving of AMP contains 107 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 34 to 38 milligrams for the same amount of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Monster has 120 milligrams and Red Bull has 116. But it could be worse, a 16-ounce serving of Starbuck’s coffee contains 330 milligrams of caffeine.

Last year, the Suffolk County’s Board of Health urged lawmakers to ban sales of energy drinks to anyone under 19. But this was a step too far.

Most times it is easier to blame others than to blame oneself. If parents do not properly educate their children on the health risks of consuming too many energy drinks, then it is their fault, not the energy drink company’s, when their kid winds up in the emergency room after chugging three 16-ounce Red Bulls.

For younger children, a parent’s warning should be enough but teenagers, who make these choices on their own, need an adequate warning from the companies themselves.

Currently, most companies have warnings in tiny letters on the back of their cans that say energy drinks are not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine. But this isn’t enough. Warning labels should note the health risks of consuming too much caffeine and should be moved to the front of the can. This way, people are more aware of the monster health effects of a caffeine overdose. 

Patrick Crowley is a Newsday Opinion intern and a high school student on Long Island.