Energy Drink Consumption May Lead to Future Cocaine Use Among Young Adults

At this point, the dangers of energy drinks should come as no surprise. And whilemany people use the caffeine-laden drinks sparingly and safely,increasing evidence shows that consumption can quickly become habitual among adolescents seeking the energy “high” the drinks can provide.

What’s more, studies show that individualswho regularly consumeenergy drinks are ingesting many times theirdaily recommended caffeine intake,even riskingcaffeine toxicityin some cases.

But what does energy drink use among young adults mean in the long term? Is this just a passing fad that teenswill outgrow, or does it establish risky patterns of substance use and, indeed, abuse?

Researchers fromthe University of Maryland School of Public Health aimedto investigate those questions in a new study published this month in “Drug and Alcohol Dependence.”

The researchers examineddata from 1,099 college-age students, who were part of an ongoing longitudinal study begun in 2004. The students submitted at least one assessment every year detailing their habits. They also participated in interviews, during which they were asked about their energy drink consumption.

These patterns allowed researchers to categorize participants into three groups: frequent users who hadconsumed energy drinks for 52 or more days; occasional users who reported using energy drinks between 12-51 days; and infrequent users who consumed energy drinks between one and 11days.

As the study proceeded, researchers soughtto evaluate participants’ alcohol use, looking for signs of alcohol use disorder. They also evaluated respondents’ cigarette, marijuana and cocaine use, as well as non-medical prescription stimulants and analgesics.

Researchers found that energy drink use generally decreased as the participants got older. For example, between the ages of 21 and 25, energy drink use declinedfrom 62.5 percent to 49.1 percent. So, for many, the drinksseem to lose theirappeal and fail tocreate a lifelong pattern.

However, those who used energy drinks persistently appeared to carry greater risks of abusing certain substance. These individualshad the highest average scores for alcohol use disorder, as well as tobacco, marijuana and cocaine use.

Researchersreported that if young adults’ energy drink consumption declined after the age of 21, their risk of using cocaine and developing an alcohol dependencyalso declined. This finding suggests that a specific set of behaviors underlying energy drink usage may exist — and later translate into substance abuse problems.

Because researchers also tracked coffee consumption, they were able to discount that an overall caffeine habit might be to blame. The data did not predict the same patterns whenparticipants onlydrank coffee, and there seemed to be no overt predictive power between a coffee habit and cocaine use.

To be clear, the researchers are not suggesting that energy drink consumption is the sole cause ofcocaine use or alcoholismin young adults. After all, substance abuse has many overlapping causes. But this study makes clear that a persistent energy drink habit seems to have a predictive power to tell us who might use other stimulants or substances.

As lead author Dr. Amelia Arria explained:

The results suggest that energy drink users might be at heightened risk for other substance use, particularly stimulants. Because of the longitudinal design of this study, and the fact that we were able to take into account other factors that would be related to risk for substance use, this study provides evidence of a specific contribution of energy drink consumption to subsequent substance use.

Existing research has suggested that caffeine itself may have addictive qualities. This usually does not present a problem at low levels of ingestion, but the high doses in some energy drinksmay increaseboth the risks of health complications and the need to go back for more. Even so, stimulant-seeking behavior doesn’t wholly account for the escalation pattern among heavy users.

Energy drinks are not regulated in the same way as other stimulant products. While the industry has been quick to defend itself and claim thattheir products are deemed safe by state and federal bodies, what might work as a safety standard for some products does not necessarily constitute a safety limit for all.

That’s not to suggest that energy drinks are entirely unsafe, but rather that we may have been unprepared for howthey would corner a market of young users.

Figuresshow that energy drink consumption is continuing to hold — and even climb — among adolescents and young adults, so the researchers in this case are calling for more detailed examinations of energy drink consumption and other habits.

Public health professionals seek to ascertain whether increased regulation, particularly regarding marketing tactics,would helpto ensure that we are not setting young adults up for substance abuse problems in the future.

Photo Credit: Mike Mozart/Flickr

28 comments

Marie W
Marie W7 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Jen S
Jen Sabout a year ago

I am ambivalent about them and I know someone who does abuse them to a degree. Nor am I entirely convinced of their safety with respect to existing heart issues. I prefer tea, hot or iced and would probably dislike feeling hyper/

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIEabout a year ago

Dont see the point in them and try to not encourage anyone near to me to drink them.

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LF F
LF Fabout a year ago

Energy drinks are taxing on your heart. I wouldn't dream of drinking one even on my longest and most tired shift at work.

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Emma S
Emma S.about a year ago

Mainstream energy drinks have been extensively studied and confirmed safe for consumption by government safety authorities worldwide including a recent review by the European Food Safety Authority. Nothing in this study counters this well-established fact.

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Carole R
Carole Rabout a year ago

Not good!

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One Heart inc
One Heart incabout a year ago

Thanks!!!

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Bearaabout a year ago

I doubt it

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Gary S
Gary Stewartabout a year ago

I don't drink coffee and have never tried an energy drink, don't drink most sodas unless in a float. Ice tea, milk both white and chocolate and water are my preferred drinks.

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Anne M
Anne Moranabout a year ago

What an odd study.. - Most young people will experiment with all kinds of things,, that's what they do..

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