Some schools put the lid on high-caffeine beverages

Say energy drinks pose health risk

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2009

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With consumers gulping caffeine-laden energy drinks in record numbers, some school officials in Massachusetts are taking steps to curtail use of the popular high-octane beverages by schoolchildren.

In June, the Dudley-Charlton School Committee, which serves two communities south of Worcester, banned the energy beverages, becoming apparently the first in the state to prohibit the drinks at middle schools and middle school-sponsored activities.

And this month, King Philip Regional School District, which includes the towns of Plainville, Wrentham, and Norfolk, decided to rewrite the middle school student handbook to discourage consumption of the drinks.

“Our point was not to be a pioneer,’’ said Dudley-Charlton School Superintendent Sean Gilrein. “The focus was on safety. In high doses, these caffeine drinks are not good for kids, and if we can provide parents with an incentive not to give them, well, we will.’’

King Philip school officials began to focus on energy drinks after a student who drank several cans got sick on an after-school ski trip to Mount Wachusett last winter. Parents became concerned and called the principal. In the Dudley-Charlton district, some middle school students were bouncing off the walls as the first bell of the day rang, with racing pulses and pounding hearts, and then suffering a sluggish crash an hour or two later that made learning next to impossible, school officials said.

The drinks have high levels of caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. Children tend to gulp the drinks, because they are often served cold, said Mimi Stamer, president of the Massachusetts School Nurse Association. They often experience anxiety, rapid heart rates, heart palpitations, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and indigestion even after consuming relatively small amounts, she said.

“Energy drinks may contain about the same amount - or several times the amount - of caffeine as a cup of brewed coffee and twice the caffeine as a cup of tea,’’ said Stamer, who is also director of school health services in the Needham Public Schools.

While the Food and Drug Administration has set a limit on the caffeine content of soft drinks, 68 milligrams per 12 ounces, Monster contains 160 milligrams of caffeine, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Similarly, a 16-ounce can of Full Throttle has 144 milligrams of caffeine, Amp has 143 milligrams, Enviga 100 milligrams, and No Name (formerly known as Cocaine) has 280 milligrams.

Worldwide, the $4.8 billion energy drink market is booming, with consumption up 400 percent since 2003. Among teenagers, 35 percent said they regularly consume energy drinks, up from 19 percent in 2003, according to Mintel, a consumer research firm.

The industry defends the drinks.

“Energy drinks are safe,’’ said Tracey Halliday, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association in Washington. “But like any other food or beverage, they need to be consumed sensibly.’’

The organization, which represents producers, marketers, and distributors of nonalcoholic beverages, said it has worked nationally over the past three years to implement guidelines reducing the caloric count of the drinks sold in schools.

Halliday said the association respects local decisions, like those made in Dudley-Charlton and at King Philip, but she also said all of the association’s products can be part of a healthy lifestyle. “In most mainstream energy drinks the amount of caffeine is modest,’’ she said. “What we need to teach is balance.’’

But health specialists warn of side effects.

According to “Energy Drinks: The New Eye-Opener for Adolescents,’’ a 2008 paper written by a trio of New England medical experts, “the consumption of such supplements has resulted in increasing reports of caffeine poisoning.’’

The three specialists, Doctors Kavita M. Babu of Brown University, Richard James Church of UMass Memorial Medical Center, and William Lewander of Rhode Island Hospital, wrote that “the availability of caffeine-containing energy beverages, combined with aggressive marketing and urban legend, has promoted their widespread use, particularly among adolescents . . . [however] the caffeine content of these products is presently unregulated.’’

As use has skyrocketed, so has concern among school officials. Schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Australia have recently decided to ban or discourage their use.

In October, the Massachusetts Intercollegiate Athletic Association told coaches that athletes should not consume energy drinks to rehydrate themselves.

Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the MIAA said the position statement was released last fall at the request of the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

“They want us to call more attention to the fact they can be dangerous,’’ he said.

King Philip schools stopped short of an outright ban to allow more time to study the issue.

“In everything we do we want to encourage healthy habits for our students,’’ said Patrick Francomano, a member of the King Philip Regional School Committee.

Jonathan C. Considine, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state has no overall position on the matter.

“This is a local policy decision,’’ Considine said. “An individual school district can make the determination as part of their wellness policy, and I believe some districts have included energy drinks in those policies as foods to not be consumed.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at