D.C. Abuzz About Energy Drinks

America’s politicians and media love a good public panic. And right now they’re having a field day touting the supposed dangers associated with energy drinks.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing in late July to grill energy drink makers on their marketing practices, while in May the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced plans to investigate the use of caffeine as a food additive, with a focus on the risks it poses to children and adolescents. Journalists and pundits have described the products as deadly and called for restricting their sale. And most recently, the poison control center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School made headlines by claiming that energy drinks have as much caffeine as four to five cans of soda and ought to be banned outright.

It’s true that energy drinks can be dangerous if over-consumed, but that’s true of any product. But campaigns against energy drinks pose a far greater danger: taking away individuals’ right to make their own dietary choices.

Humans have been safely consuming caffeine in its natural form for millennia and have used caffeine extract safely for nearly two centuries. Energy drinks are a relatively new product—they have been around for less than 20 years—but their popularity has seen a recent surge. These products often contain high levels of caffeine. Their increased use has been blamed for an increasing number of visits to the emergency room (reportedly rising from about 10,000 in 2007 to more than 20,000 in 2011), a handful of sudden deaths among young people, and a host of other health problems.

Also in November 2012, the FDA released the records of complaints filed against three of the most popular energy drink companies since 2004. The reports, known as Adverse Event Reports, detail complaints made by consumers and their physicians about possible negative side effects linked to the consumption of energy drinks. Of the 145 complaints, some were serious or life-threatening like convulsions, heart attacks, and 13 deaths, while others led to less serious symptoms, like sleep disorders, throat irritation, and crying.

Opponents of energy drinks cite this report as evidence of their inherent danger, but as the FDA itself notes, these reports are simply associations. They do not prove that the drinks caused or were even related to the patients’ problems, only that a patient or a doctor reported to the FDA that energy drinks were used around the time that person’s health issue arose. The reports provide no details about other factors that might have contributed to a person’s condition, such as whether he or she was on medication, was drinking alcohol, or had a preexisting health condition.

And while there has reportedly been an uptick in the amount of hospitalizations related to energy drinks, again, such reports do not reveal a causal relationship. The increasing numbers are more likely related to energy drinks’ increasing popularity, especially as a mixer for alcoholic beverages. People are simply more likely to be drinking energy drinks when they end up in the emergency room regardless of whether or not the energy drink contributed to their being there.

Even if energy drinks were a contributing factor in some of the 20,783 ER visits linked to their use in 2011, the number pales in comparison to that of people who ended  up in the hospital due to misuse of other consumer goods. For example, grooming products reportedly caused twice as many injuries in 2011 as energy drinks, clothing was responsible for more than 300,000 trips to the ER and furniture—namely, chairs, sofas, and sofa beds—were correlated with more than 580,000 injury reports. But nobody is holding hearings and calling to ban Ikea.

Considering that nearly 3 billion 16-ounce cans of energy drinks were sold in 2009 and it’s estimated that 2 percent of the population consumes them, if there were some inherent risk in the consumption of energy drinks, we should expect to see a much higher number of people falling ill. Yet, public health advocates still want the government to ban or limit-out-of-existence a product which the vast majority of people are fully capable of consuming responsibly. Banning products and treating adults like children will not improve the health of our nation. Instead, it’s a recipe for childish adults who rely on the government to tell them how to live.