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High sensation-seeking youth may be particularly likely to drink energy drinks

Harold Mandel's picture
The popular energy drink Monster

There has been a lot of marketing hype surrounding energy drinks. Energy drinks which have a high sugar and caffeine content may be unhealthy, with some adverse health effects and deaths reported to be associated with their use. Recent research suggests that, as might be anticipated from the high powered advertising campaigns for these drinks, youths seeking a lot of sensations in their lives may be more likely than others to drink energy drinks.

Researchers set out to investigate associations which may exist between energy drink users and substane abuse, reported the Journal of Addiction Medicine. The researchers studied self-reported data from cross-sectional surveys of nationally representative samples of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students. It was found that approximately 30 percent of students reported consuming energy drinks or shots. About 40 percent of the students reported daily regular soft drink use, and about 20 percent reported daily diet soft drink use.

Consumption of these beverages was found to be strongly and positively associated with past 30-day alcohol, cigarette, and illicit drug use. The associations which were observed between energy drinks and substance use were significantly stronger than those associations between regular or diet soft drinks and substance use. The researchers concluded that consumption of energy drinks/shots among adolescents is widespread and that energy drink users report increased risk for substance use.

There has not been any causation between the behaviors established by this study. Education initiatives for parents along with prevention efforts among adolescents should include teaching about the masking effects of caffeine in energy drinks on alcohol and on other substance associated impairments. It should also be highlighted that some groups, such as high sensation–seeking youth, may be particularly likely to consume energy drinks and to be substance users.

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Teens who consume energy drinks are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, reports Wolters Kluwer Health via Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. About one-third of adolescents in the United States consume high-caffeine energy drinks or what are called shots, and these teens report higher rates of alcohol, cigarette, or drug use. New research by Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath, MSA, and colleagues of the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, suggests that the same characteristics which attract young people to consume energy drinks, such as being “sensation-seeking or risk-oriented," may make them more likely to also use other substances.

The students who used energy drinks/shots were found to be more likely to report recent use of alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit drugs. The teens who used energy drinks/shots were observed to be two or three times more likely to report other types of substance use, in comparison to those who didn’t use energy drinks. It was reported that soft drink consumption was also associated with substance use. However, the associations were found to be much stronger for energy drinks/shots. Energy drinks and shots are products which contain high doses of caffeine, and are marketed as aids to increase energy, concentration, or alertness.

Energy drinks have been associated with behavioral patterns of “sensation-seeking or risk orientation” in young adults. Energy drinks are often consumed together with alcohol. The energy drinks have been found to often mask the intoxicating effects of alcohol. Terry-McElrath and colleagues have written, “The current study indicates that adolescent consumption of energy drinks/shots is widespread and that energy drink users also report heightened risk for substance use.” However, they have emphasized that their study provides no cause-and-effect data which shows that energy drinks lead to substance abuse in teens.

The researchers think it is important to point out the masking effects of caffeine in energy drinks on alcohol and other substance related impairments, in education for parents and prevention efforts among adolescents. It should also be pointed out that some groups of kids, such as high sensation seeking youth, may be particularly likely to drink energy drinks and to be substance users. The researchers point out that even in the absence of the possible link to substance use, the high caffeine and sugar content of energy drinks and shots make them a poor dietary choice for teens. It has been the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics that caffeine and other stimulant substances which are contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.

I have seen a lot of young people drinking energy drinks in an addictive like manner. It is generally difficult to say if these kids overall have addictive sensation-seeking personality types, or if they are simply victims of hyped up mass marketing of energy drinks. Regardless, as pointed out by these researchers and the American Academy of Pediatrics, energy drinks which are loaded with caffeine and sugar simply are not good for kids. Efforts should be made to educate parents and kids about the potential for serious health hazards from drinking energy drinks.