Is Consuming Energy Drinks a Predictor of Substance Abuse?

Energy Drinks and Subsequent Drug Abuse

A study by the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, University of Maryland School of Public Health, Department of Behavioral and Community Health, found a correlation between energy drink consumption and subsequent drug use during young adulthood.

Published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the research showed, “The typical pattern of ED [Energy Drink] consumption among this sample was sustained use throughout young adulthood. Such individuals appear to be at high risk for adverse substance use outcomes, and results suggest possible specificity regarding cocaine use and NPS [nonmedical use of prescription stimulants}, and AUD [alcohol use disorder] risk.”

This finding does not surprise me.

Addiction to Any Substance Increases Risk

We know that most substance use disorders begin in youth. Maria Szalavitz, neuroscientist and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addictions, explains, “Like 90 percent of all addictions, the vast majority of prescription-drug problems start with experimentation in adolescence or early adulthood, typically after or alongside binge drinking, marijuana smoking and often cocaine use.” An addiction to any substance carries a 7-fold increased risk of addiction to another substance.

According to a USA Today article, a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found, “Kids who drink high-caffeinated energy drinks can suffer negative health, social, emotional and behavioral problems.” It concluded, “Energy drinks…should not be sold or marketed to children under 18.”

In fact, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity reports, “Due to the potential health risks caused by stimulants in energy drinks, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that energy drinks never be consumed by children or adolescents.”

Are Guidelines for Energy Drinks the Answer?

According to USA Today, the American Beverage Association (ABA) disputes the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity’s claims. The ABA believes: “This report ignores crucial data about energy drinks and caffeine consumption in the U.S. Based on the most recent government data reported in the journal Pediatrics, children under 12 have virtually no caffeine consumption from energy drinks.”

The trade association developed the ABA Guidance for the Responsible Labeling and Marketing of Energy Drinks and says that it received a commitment from its members, including 95 percent of energy drink manufacturers, to follow these guidelines.

Guidelines or no guidelines, our biology makes energy drinks attractive to some people. An energy drink is a drug, and although many people can use them safely, others cannot.

People who find these drugs rewarding are at a higher risk of seeking rewards from other stimulants.

Of course, this does not mean that people who use energy drinks necessarily are going to develop a stimulant use disorder or alcohol use disorder. It just means they might be at increased risk due to their biology.

Our biology is the product of our genetics and environment. The more stress in a person’s environment, the greater the risk of a substance use disorder.

Progressive Disease Begins Early in Life

Although the Center on Young Adult Health and Development’s research is about stimulants, it is important to understand that, for most of the people with opioid use disorder, the problem also began in their youth when they used, or abused, other substances.

The Center’s research further illustrates the fact that substance use disorder is often a progressive disease begins early in life. As a researcher, I think this study has policy implications.

If we are going to prevent substance use disorders, we must focus on the policies that will prevent the development of the disease early in life. That would require that policymakers recognize it is the demand for rewarding drugs, not just the availability of a drug, which drives SUDs.

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