Will Politics Take Away Your Caffeine?

For as long as anyone can remember, Americans have enjoyed their morning cups of coffee without incident. But now, an increasingly loud minority insists an essential component of coffee – caffeine – is so dangerous government should limit its consumption.

The Food and Drug Administration, prompted by growing public pressure, announced this month plans to investigate the use of caffeine as an additive, with a focus on the risks it poses to children and adolescents.

Given the FDA is undertaking this study in response to political pressure, its conclusions are likely to be politicized. But should politics determine what foods and drinks consumers are allowed to buy?

Public health advocates insist energy drinks – sales of which have more than doubled in the last five years – have led to around 30 deaths over five years and more than 20,000 visits to the emergency room a year. They claim products such as Red Bull, Monster and Five Hour Energy are attractive to children, who are less tolerant to the effects of caffeine than adults. The news media have piled on with sensational headlines that suggest these drinks can lead to accident, illness or crime. As a result, lawmakers have sought to ban or restrict energy drinks sales … or at least put the pressure on the FDA to "do something."

Last November, the FDA did do something. In response to repeated appeals from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the agency announced the results of an in-depth analysis of U.S. energy drink consumption up to 2010. According to a letter to Sen. Durbin dated Nov. 21, 2012, the FDA's research found the amount of caffeine consumed by both adults and children (ages 14-21) were within safe levels – even with the addition of energy drinks to the market. It also found the main sources of caffeine consumption were coffee, tea and soft drinks – not energy drinks.

So, what has changed in six months to prompt the FDA to look, yet again, at Americans' caffeine consumption? The most likely answer is: political and public pressure. As with other products and ingredients that have been labeled as "harmful" and banned without any evidence of their causing harm, health advocates are undertaking a fear-mongering campaign to ban a product they have decided consumers are not smart enough to handle on their own.

Two news items published in the last six months have been particularly effective in scaring lawmakers and regulators into action. In November 2012, the FDA publicly released the adverse event reporting records for several energy drinks, which revealed that about 30 deaths over five years were connected to the products. Three months later, reports began circulating that the number of people landing in hospital emergency rooms after drinking energy drinks had doubled since 2007. These headlines sound alarming and make for attention-grabbing headlines. But when put into context, these numbers tell us very little about the safety of the products involved.

While it is possible to overdose on caffeine, just as it's possible to overdose on almost any other product, the cause of the 30 reported fatalities is not known. Adverse event reports are filed with the FDA by patients or their doctors who suspect a food or beverage contributed to a person's injury or illness, but they are not proof of cause, as the FDA itself notes. Furthermore, considering the millions of Americans who consume energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages each day, the number of deaths and hospitalizations are tiny.

Even if every emergency visit attributed to energy drinks was, in fact, related to the consumption of these products, the numbers would pale in comparison to other products. For instance, energy drinks were supposedly the cause of 20,783 ER visits in 2011, but grooming products caused twice as many injuries that year as energy drinks, clothing was responsible for more than 300,000 ER  visits and chairs, sofas, and sofa beds were related to more than 580,000 visits to the hospital.

It's true caffeine, when consumed in large enough quantities or by those with certain medical conditions, can have negative side effects. This however, is true for virtually every consumable product: even water can become deadly if over-consumed. The only safeguards to protect consumers from the perils of everyday life are personal responsibility, common sense and good parenting. It is not possible for government to protect people from themselves, nor should it try.