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 while many 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 individuals who regularly consume energy drinks are ingesting many times their daily recommended caffeine intake, even risking caffeine toxicity in some cases.

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

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

The researchers examined data 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 had consumed 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 11 days.

As the study proceeded, researchers sought to 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 declined from 62.5 percent to 49.1 percent. So, for many, the drinks seem to lose their appeal and fail to create a lifelong pattern.

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

Researchers reported that if young adults’ energy drink consumption declined after the age of 21, their risk of using cocaine and developing an alcohol dependency also 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 when participants only drank 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 of cocaine use or alcoholism in 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 drinks may increase both 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 that their 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 how they would corner a market of young users.

Figures show 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 help to 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 W5 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Jen S
Jen S10 months 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 FOURIE10 months 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 F10 months 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.11 months 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 R11 months ago

Not good!

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One Heart inc
One Heart inc11 months ago

Thanks!!!

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara11 months ago

I doubt it

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Gary S
Gary Stewart11 months 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 M11 months ago

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

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