Should emergency rooms track the number of people who get hurt or sick after drinking coffee? That's what the maker of Monster Energy drinks suggests in response to a recent report that emergency room visits involving caffeine-laced energy drinks doubled from 2007 to 2011.
The energy drink maker took issue with the report, pointing out that there was no evidence in the federal government's survey that energy drinks caused the patients' health problems — and that energy drinks aren't the only way to slug caffeine.
"The report did not even look at ER visits associated with coffee consumption and could not say whether people who had consumed significant quantities of caffeine from coffee or other sources do not likewise visit the ER," Monster Beverage Corp. said in a statement. As we've reported recently, young people are drinking more coffee for the extra jolt these days.
True, most people don't confess to having downed a latte when they show up sick at the ER. But public health officials and lawmakers say energy drinks pose unique hazards because they're often sold in large sizes that deliver a potent dose of caffeine. They're flavored and colored to look like soft drinks, making them more appealing to children and teenagers than a cup of coffee. That gives the impression that there's no downside to drinking a lot, even though consuming large amounts of caffeine can cause problems like rapid heartbeat, muscle tremors and seizures.
Last fall, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that it has received five reports of people dying after drinking caffeinated energy drinks, including a 14-year-old Maryland girl. The agency says there's no proof that the drinks caused the deaths, but it's now investigating energy drink safety. And the Federal Trade Commission is looking into the manufacturers' marketing, which, among other things, claims the drinks improve energy and concentration.
The new numbers on emergency department visits come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which tracks drug-related ER visits. They found that energy drink-related visits rose from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011. That's out of more than 1 million drug-related ER visits, the agency says. Before 2007, energy drink incidents were too few to report, the paper says.
About 60 percent of the patients were seeking help with adverse reactions to the energy drink alone, while 27 percent had also taken prescription drugs. About 13 percent of patients had downed energy drinks and alcohol, and 10 percent had combined energy drinks and illegal drugs. Teenagers and young adults were most likely to end up in the ER.
The face-palm stat: 9 percent of the unfortunates had combined energy drinks with prescription stimulants like Ritalin, giving them a double dose of chemical buzz.
The SAMHSA study doesn't prove that the drinks caused the health problems, but tracks with other studies that have found health problems with energy drinks. People who combine energy drinks with alcohol are more likely to get drunk and drive drunk, according to a 2010 study.
The SAMHSA report prompted three congressmen to renew their call for companies to fully disclose ingredients in energy drinks, and provide evidence to support marketing claims.
"There is very clearly a lack of understanding about the health effects of energy drinks and their ingredients, especially on children and adolescents," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement.
And last week, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke proposed a citywide ban on sales of energy drinks. "Chicago ought to be on the forefront of public awareness and education about the potential dangers of these products," he told a local TV station. No word on whether the rest of the City Council backs the notion of a buzz-free Windy City.