In a letter to the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today called for an investigation into energy drinks like Monster Energy, Rockstar and Red Bull, which contain high levels of caffeine and potentially dangerous ingredients yet are marketed to young people. Durbin’s call for an investigation comes after learning the story of a 14-year-old girl from Maryland, Anais Fournier, who died last December of a cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity after drinking two 24-ounce Monster energy drinks in a 24-hour period.
“Consuming large quantities of caffeine can have serious health consequences, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia, and in some cases death. Young people are especially susceptible to suffering adverse effects because energy drinks market to youth, their bodies are not accustomed to caffeine, and energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and stimulating additives that may interact when used in combination,” wrote Durbin. “The glossy marketing tailored to youth has worked - 30 to 50 percent of adolescents report consuming energy drinks.”
According to a recent NBC news report, after drinking two energy drinks – which together contained 480 milligrams of caffeine, five times the limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics – Anais Fournier went into cardiac arrest and died from cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity. A 2011 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that emergency room visits due to energy drink consumption increase ten-fold between 2005 and 2009. The report also found that of these emergency room visits, 45 percent were young people between the ages of 18 and 25, and 56 percent were due to energy drinks alone, and not energy drinks used with alcohol, drugs, or medications.
In today’s letter, Durbin called on the FDA to take action to enforce the caffeine levels in energy drinks. The FDA has already instituted a limit on the caffeine levels in soft drinks to .02 percent or less of the product – about 71mg in a 12oz soda. However, energy drinks such as Red Bull contain caffeine levels over the FDA limit, which is not currently not actively enforced for energy drinks. The agency has the authority to regulate additives in beverages to ensure they are safe for their intended use and when used in combination with other ingredients, and can require manufacturers of energy drinks to provide scientific evidence that ingredients such as guarana, taurine, yerba mate, kola nut, and ginseng are safe for their intended use and in combination with caffeine and other energy drink ingredients.
Most energy drinks avoid FDA oversight by being marketed as dietary supplements as the distinction between dietary supplements and foods with dietary ingredient additives is not always clear, leaving room for some food and beverages to be marketed as dietary supplements in order to circumvent the safety standards required for food additives.
Last year, Durbin introduced legislation to make sure that consumers have the information they need to distinguish between products that are safe and others that contain potentially dangerous ingredients which haven't been approved by the FDA. Durbin’s Dietary Supplement Labeling Act would also require dietary supplement manufacturers to disclose the known risks of ingredients and display a mandatory warning if the product contains a dietary ingredient that may cause potentially serious adverse events. Labels would also have to include the batch number, which would help the FDA identify and recall contaminated product.