SACRAMENTO — Today’s drug of choice among teens may be caffeine, perfectly legal and packaged in an aluminum can with a catchy name like Bawls or Amp or Hype.
Ask a group of Sacramento high school students what they’re drinking and they’ll shout out their favorite energy drinks: “Monster!” “Rockstar!” “Boo Koo!” “Go Girl!” Or stop by Nugget Market in Davison a Wednesday morning and witness adolescents drinking Red Bulls and Monsters before heading to Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School, where the drinks have been banned from campus.
In the past 12 months, the California Poison Control System has handled 26 calls about dangerous reactions to energy drinks in kids, most of them ages 14 and 15. In all, 15 young people landed in emergency rooms with “shakiness, tremors, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, agitation, increased heart rate or high blood pressure,” said Judith Alsop, director of poison control’s Sacramento Division.
And it’s not just teenagers who are drawn to the drinks, which typically contain two to three times the caffeine of a regular soda and nearly as much sugar, plus herbal ingredients such as caffeine-containing guarana.
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“I am seeing kids drinking them on the elementary school campus,” said Patty Mancuso, a past president of the California School Nurses Organization and a school nurse in Redding who recently warned parents about the drinks. “What we see are kids who come to school who have a lot of caffeine in their system. They get jittery and they have poor behavior.”
It’s not known how much of the $6.2 billion energy drink industry in the United States can be attributed to sales to adolescents and teens.
John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, which tracks beverage sales, said most energy drink consumers are young adults.
“I am sure there are some young people who try it, but that is not where the growth or most of the consumption is,” he said.
Nevertheless, kids’ use of the drinks has concerned school officials and health advocates.
Derek Brothers, principal at Holmes Junior High, decided last year to prohibit the drinks on campus after learning that some students were consuming several before school and others were buying six-packs and selling the cans for a profit on campus.
The problem was most pronounced on Wednesdays, when school starts at 9:30 a.m. — more than an hour later than normal. The schedule gives kids ample time to shop for their favorite drinks and drink them down before the first bell.
Brothers teamed with Nugget Market manager Lance Benton, who agreed to prohibit students from purchasing more than one drink per person before school.
“The last thing a second period teacher needs is kids who have had five energy drinks,” Benton said.
Recently, about three dozen Holmes students were at Nugget, many of them with cold energy drinks in hand.
Among them: T.J. Rivers, a 13-year-old eighth-grader.
“It tastes good, and it keeps me awake in class,” he said. “It’s like morning coffee to me.”
By 9:15 a.m. classmate Jake Spinks, also 13, said he already had consumed a Rockstar Juiced Guava and a Red Bull (for a total of about 240 milligrams of caffeine), the equivalent of about three cups of brewed coffee.
“I’m feeling great,” Spinks said with a grin.
The seventh-grader acknowledged, however, that the drinks can make him jumpy and unruly in class.
“I get obnoxious, really hyper,” he said. “My parents get mad because I get sent to the office a lot.”
Curious to know whether what she was seeing in her own district in Redding was happening statewide, Mancuso queried other school nurses in California. Several said yes and offered their own anecdotes.
Sjaan Buck, head nurse at the 2,800-student John Burroughs High School in Burbank, said she has sent three kids to the hospital by ambulance in the past year because of side effects from caffeine in energy drinks. Two students experienced tachycardia (rapid or irregular heart rate).
The other student “had two doughnuts for breakfast and then one or two Monsters and he got so anxious that he hyperventilated to the point where he literally couldn’t move,” Buck said.
She said she’s seen similar reactions in students who have consumed too many espressos.
“It’s a sign of the times,” she sighed. “Kids don’t see rest and healthful eating as a way to have more energy.”
Energy drink labels often state that they are not recommended for children, but sales of the drinks are not restricted by age as are products that contain tobacco and alcohol.
Nutrition experts who have studied the drinks’ contents argue that while there is no good evidence they boost vitality or stamina as claimed, neither is there documented proof that they pose a significant threat.
“Caffeine in and of itself is not a harmful substance, but if you are not used to it or you take it in large amounts it can be considered dangerous,” said Mark Kantor, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Maryland. “I just don’t see any reason why they should be drinking it.”