There's a new concern being expressed by scientists and clinicians about the broad use of energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster and Rockstar. Over the last decade, use of these drinks has become nearly ubiquitous on college campuses. The global market for these types of drinks currently exceeds $3 billion a year and new products--some with even more "energy" ingredients--are introduced each year.
That new concern is the increasingly evident link between energy drinks and public health concerns like substance abuse and risky behaviors.
Although few researchers have examined energy drink consumption, Dr. Kathleen Miller at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) has been investigating the relationships between energy drink consumption and risk-taking in college students as well as what her team calls "toxic jock identity." This last concern is characterized by hyper-masculinity and risk-taking behaviors among college-age athletes.
"The principal target demographic for energy drinks is young adults ages 18-25, but they're nearly as common among younger teens," she explains. "This is a concern because energy drinks typically contain three times the caffeine of a soft drink, and in some cases, up to 10 times as much. They also include ingredients with potential interactions," Miller continues.
In the first set of results published online in June in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Miller identified links between energy drink consumption, risky substance use and sexual risk-taking. Frequent energy drink consumers (six or more days a month), were approximately three times as likely than less-frequent energy drink consumers or non-consumers to have smoked cigarettes, abused prescription drugs and been in a serious physical fight in the year prior to the survey.
Frequent energy drink users reported drinking alcohol, having alcohol-related problems and using marijuana about twice as often as non-consumers. They were also more likely to engage in other forms of risk-taking, including unsafe sex, not using a seatbelt, participating in an extreme sport and doing something dangerous on a dare.
A total of 795 Western New York male and female undergraduate students participated in the study and 39 percent reported consuming at least one energy drink in the previous month. There was significantly higher consumption by men (46 percent) than by women (31 percent) and higher consumption by whites (40 percent) than by blacks (25 percent).
Two-thirds of the energy drink consumers in Miller's study had used energy drinks as mixers with alcoholic beverages. The growing popularity of this practice further heightens concern, Miller says.
"It is widely, but incorrectly, believed that the caffeine in energy drinks counteracts the effects of alcohol, so students will have the energy to party all night without getting as drunk," she explains. While the combination may reduce perceptions of intoxication, it does not reduce alcohol-induced impairments of reaction time or judgment.