Senator Durbin is wrong on energy drinks ban

Several lawmakers have called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to “do something” to protect the public from the alleged threat of energy drinks after the agency received a small number “adverse event reports” related to the products. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has called for an outright ban. Such overheated reactions are out of line with reality. Basing policy on a knee-jerk reaction to a handful of incidents that may or may not be related to energy drinks could rob consumers of their right to make their own choices about their health and diet.

Making sure the products we consume are safe is important, but taking into consideration the millions of energy drinks—not to mention energy supplements and coffee — that people consume every day without incident, the number of cases where someone has suffered adverse effects from consuming such products is so small as to be statistically insignificant. And even in those cases, there is no evidence that the drinks are what caused the bad reaction.

Perhaps as a result of increasing pressure from lawmakers like Senator Durbin, the FDA chose to release the records of complaints filed since 2004 against three of the most popular energy drink products: 5-Hour Energy, Monster, and Rockstar. As the agency’s press release notes, the reports include adverse health-related events that the companies must report to the FDA by law, as well as reports are filed voluntarily by consumers. Of the reports filed, more than 30 connect energy drinks to serious or life-threatening incidents, including heart attacks, convulsions, and at least one case of spontaneous abortion. The FDA is investigating at least 13 deaths that may be linked to “energy shot” type products.

On the floor of the Senate last week, Durbin evangelized that, “young people and others are dying from these energy drinks.” That is simply not true—we do not know what caused the adverse events. Such reports are filed by consumers, or their family members, when they suspect a product has caused the health event they are reporting. Yet, two things happening around the same time doesn’t imply a causal relationship.

Adverse event reports are not evidence that a product caused someone to have a health problem. If a person feels light-headed and faints, he or she might believe that it was caused by soda consumed an hour before. While the soda might have had something to do with it, a completely different reason — or reasons — may have combined to cause the fainting spell. So, is there reason to suspect that energy drinks are the menace public health advocates and some lawmakers claim?

No. According to the agency itself, these reports submitted to the FDA do not necessarily prove that the energy drinks are the cause of — or even related to—the reported deaths or illnesses. While the drinks may be one contributing factor, it may also be pure coincidence. Durbin insists that caffeine from energy drinks causes cardiac arrest. But if that’s true we would expect to see many more cases than the handful of reported incidents to date. Nearly 1 million people have heart attacks in America every year. Most happen to people who did not report consuming energy drinks.

While it’s true that reported cases usually only represent a fraction of the number of actual cases, considering that hundreds of millions of cans of energy drinks sold in the U.S. every year, it is safe to say that the vast majority of people can tolerate such products without serious cardiac problems.

The FDA limits caffeine in foods but does not consider it a nutrient and doesn’t require manufacturers to list the amount on labels. Some companies, including makers of soda and coffee, list caffeine content either on their product or on their website, but most do not. The reasons are threefold, according to industry analysts. First, fear of getting it wrong — a reasonable worry since the content of caffeine, even with coffee, can vary wildly depending on its method of preparation and even how it is served and stored. Testing is just as variable; two different labs can get two very different results, depending on methodology, equipment, and the condition of the product. Second, the energy product market is extremely competitive and companies have a strong incentive to protect their propriety formula. Third, some consumers might choose products with the highest levels of caffeine, which could have serious consequences for consumer health.

Anything we ingest can have negative and positive side effects (including water), depending on the quantity consumed and a person’s unique health condition. That is why it is up to each individual to make food and drink choices for themselves and on consultation with their own physician. It’s terrible when someone accidentally aggravates an unknown medical condition, but that is not a reason to restrict access to that product for everyone.