By Mina Kim
In the last few months, Southern California-based Monster Beverage has faced increasing questions about its energy drinks. The Food and Drug Administration is investigating whether the drinks are linked to five deaths, and there's interest at the state and local level, too. Monster has until Friday to respond to a query from the San Francisco City Attorney.
The legal case of fourteen year-old Anais Fournier prompted the FDA to disclose that it’s investigating five deaths that could be linked to Monster Beverage. After the Maryland teen drank two large cans of Monster Energy within a 24 hour period, she went into cardiac arrest and died a few days later.
That was last year, and this October, Fournier’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Monster Beverage of Corona. With those two 24-ounce cans of Monster Energy, Fournier had consumed more than five times the daily amount of caffeine that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends is safe for teens.
“Well, we do know that caffeine raises the adrenalin in your body,” USCF cardiologist Byron Lee said. “That leads to increased blood pressure and increased heart rate.”
But Lee said it's unlikely that caffeine alone would kill someone. Fournier had an underlying heart condition and Lee said it was likely the combination of the two that could have made the drinks deadly.
“I think it’s going too far to say that anybody who drinks a big dose of coffee is putting themselves at risk,” Lee said. “I think the real message is that if you're not used to caffeine and you take a big dose of it, that there are going to be physiologic effects that you'll feel. And if you have some pre-existing heart disease, I think there's some potential for an abnormal heart rhythm that could be dangerous.”
Lee said there isn’t enough research about the effects of caffeine on teens and more study is needed. According to Lee, the drinks are being consumed in large quantities by adolescents.
Energy drinks, with their bold cartoon logos have found a market among teens and young adults. Researchers say teens use the drinks when cramming for tests, or because they believe it will enhance athletic performance. Some just like the jolt of adrenalin the caffeine provides.
Standing in front of a brightly-lit display of colorful energy drinks at a San Francisco corner store, 19 year-old Malaysia Sanders said she started drinking them when she was fourteen because the can looked so cool.
“Also, the fact that it kind of looks like alcoholic beverages too, it's like, I'll buy it, ‘cuz it looks like it,” Sanders said. “[It says] I’m cool, I’m hip.”
Sanders said she doesn’t buy energy drinks anymore, but the beverages are popular with her friends who skateboard.
Monster Energy's website features a 17 year-old skateboarder amid a slew of extreme sports videos and images of “Monster girls” in low-cut tops.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the energy drink market targets teens. Herrera recently sent a letter to Monster Beverage officials demanding they prove their drinks are safe.
“The campaign talks about how ‘bigger is better’ and ‘you can never get too much of a good thing’ or ‘two cans per day of 24-ounce Monster is responsible for safe consumption by adolescents and adults,’” Herrera said. “Show me the facts.”
Officials with Monster Beverage Corporation did not respond to our requests for an interview, but said in a recent statement that its products are “safe” and that its cans have stated for years that the drinks are “not recommended for children.
Herrera has given the company until November 30, to respond to his letter or face possible legal action. In the meantime, California health officials are starting to gather data on energy drink-related health emergencies. Tom Kearney heads one of four divisions of the state's poison control system.
“I think we're starting to develop a picture of what's going on, but also finding that it's somewhat murky,” Kearney said.
Kearney found 675 poison center reports involving energy drinks in the last three years. Most of them involved males in their early 20s who took the drinks with drugs or other substances.
“A lot of these cases, I don't know their past medical history,” Kearney said. “It's hard to gauge how much of the product they used, did they misuse the product or not?”
Kearney said much more study is needed before the state can determine if energy drinks pose a public health risk.
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