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Caffeine drinks accused of contributing to a public health crisis

Most kids consume caffeine daily and soft drink makers insist the energy drinks are safe. (AP Photo/File)

The news is full of stories about kids hospitalized after consuming energy drinks infused with caffeine. One doctor is calling it a public health crisis. And there’s yet another, new caffeine drink on the market.

PepsiCo rolled out the fruity drink this week with a TV ad featuring youngsters skateboarding. KickStart has five percent fruit juice so it qualifies as a fruit drink under federal guidelines, but with a Mountain Dew flavor.

“To me, it sounds like it’s marketed to kids,” said Dr. Leslie Walker, division chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital. When you want something kind of sweet and tasty in the morning, KickStart sounds like something for a young person and I’m sure they’re going to be drawn to it.”

Most kids consume caffeine daily and soft drink makers insist the energy drinks are safe.

“Caffeine is not needed in the diet, ever, so when you say safe, I think there’s an amount which may cause a person to have less danger. But safe, I don’t really like using that word for mind-altering substances,” said Walker.

Problems such as difficulty concentrating and sleep trouble are common issues associated with caffeine use among children.

“One of the main reasons parents bring their kids into the doctor is because they’re having trouble with sleep and one of the first things you have to ask is ‘how much caffeine are you using?’ Because that affects kids, it affects some kids much more than others,” explained Walker.

The greatest danger is mixing caffeine with alcohol. Nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized in 2010 with acute intoxication after drinking copious amounts of the alcohol-caffeine drink fourLoko. Energy drinks played a role in the death of a WSU freshman last October.

“The worst cases that I see are the kids who are drinking alcohol and using caffeine,” said Walker. “They can get alcohol poisoning so much quicker because the caffeine masks the normal symptoms you might get. A lot of kids don’t know they’ve had too much and they keep drinking.”

In an editorial published last month in, Dr. Jonathan Whiteson called caffeine consumption among kids a looming public health crisis. Dr. Walker agrees, in a sense.

“I think the public health crisis is the amount of mind-altering medications, drugs, caffeine that people think are normal,” Walker said.

An associated problem with caffeine drinks is calories. They’re sweetened to appeal to young consumers.

“These kind of drinks actually don’t taste that great to a lot of kids but if you put a lot of sugar in them, get them very flavorful people will want them,” said Walker. “We have an obesity clinic for adolescents and one of the things we ask them to do is stop some of those sugary caffeinated drinks because it’s just so many calories.”

Consumer Reports recently tested 27 energy drinks and found that caffeine levels ranged from six to 242 milligrams per serving, equal to about three cups of coffee. Some listed caffeine levels were wrong. The Food and Drug Administration is conducting a broad review of the safety of energy drinks.

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