Members of the "Pepsi Generation" have become the parents and grandparents of the Red Bull-Monster-Rockstar-Full Throttle generation. Determining whether this demographic shift to drinks laden with both everyday and exotic stimulants carries health risks -- and whether these products are adequately regulated-- should be a public-health priority in 2013.
Medical providers and journals have been sounding the alarm for several years about these drinks and related "energy shot" products, particularly about their use by the main group to which they're marketed: teens and young adults. Unfortunately, action by federal regulators and parental concern about the products and their predominantly young users has not kept pace.
A landmark 2011 federal report found that sales of energy drinks skyrocketed 240 percent from 2004 to 2009 and now top $8 billion a year. The paper from the respected Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association also reported a 10-fold increase in the number of emergency-room visits linked to energy drinks from 2005 to 2009. Fifty-six percent of those who needed care ranged between the ages of 12 and 25.
In 2012, the public-health concerns intensified as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disclosed reports questioning the role of two popular caffeinated energy products -- the 5-Hour Energy shot and Monster Energy drink -- in 18 deaths.
This information doesn't prove that the products caused the fatalities. But it does dramatically underscore how little is known about the stimulants used in these drinks and how they interact with each other and other substances such as alcohol.
Two prominent articles published online Dec. 19 in the Journal of the American Medical Association spotlighted the "gaps in knowledge" as well as the known health risks associated with stimulants such as caffeine and guarana that are commonly used in energy drinks. Among the risks: increased heart rate, irregular heart rate and palpitations, increased blood pressure, increased risk of dehydration, sleep disturbances and hyperglycemia.
After nearly a year's worth of sharp prodding by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the FDA announced in late November that it will conduct a safety review. It also will consider some eminently sensible changes.
Requiring energy products to disclose the amounts of caffeine they contain, as well as warnings about adverse effects, is a no-brainer. Some drinks do provide this information. Others, however, take advantage of regulations that more tightly regulate soda than beverages classified as dietary supplements.
Until the FDA acts, parents and school officials need to be vigilant. Today, the drinks are too casually accepted by moms, dads, coaches and teachers -- perhaps because caffeine has so long been an ingredient in coffee, cola and chocolate.
A recent Consumer Reports analysis showed that the caffeine amounts provided for common energy products, when listed, can be inaccurate and that the amounts (up to 242 milligrams per serving) can be significantly higher than what is found in a cup of coffee. Ingredients such as guarana, ginseng, taurine or green tea may add to the caffeine content or stimulant effect.
FDA leadership on the issue is belated but welcome. In the meantime, parents need to step up until the health effects of energy drinks are better understood.