Need a little pick-me-up in the middle of boring work or at the end of a long day? Drink one and you'll instantly have more fun. Throw back a couple, and it's fun times two.
This is how some companies are selling energy drinks, those cans of sugary-sweet, high-caffeine drinks with names like Red Bull, Rockstar and even Whoop Ass. Costing more than $2 a pop, energy drinks are raking in $3.4 billion a year for an industry that grew by 80 percent last year.
Lured by promises of high energy, possible weight loss and greater sports endurance, young people are consuming these drinks at a growing rate. According to an Associated Press report, 31 percent of U.S. teenagers say they drink them, and some say they down several in a row to get a buzz.
While many say they're a harmless jolt of energy, doctors and nutritionists fear the medical side effects of these drinks, which aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Others worry that drink makers will resort to anything – including pumping up caffeine levels – to lure the young.
Take one of the newest brands. It caused quite a shakeup recently, and not for its level of caffeine, believed to be among the highest.
The drink: Cocaine.
Because of the name alone, convenience-store operator 7-Eleven Inc. is asking a handful of San Jose, Calif., franchise stores to stop carrying the high-caffeine drink. And the company is considering making it a nationwide request.
“Our merchandising team believes the product's name promotes an image which we didn't want to be associated with,” says Margaret Chabris, a spokeswoman for 7-Eleven. “What is it, a legal alternative to an illegal substance?”
Cocaine – the drink – comes in bright red and white cans, similar to Coca-Cola. The Cocaine name is spelled out in a powdery white font intended to resemble lines of white cocaine powder.
“[The name] is a slap in the face to the prevention we try to do,” says Janine Gracy of the Regional Prevention Center. “Yeah, it's not the drug itself, but what about those who say, I drink this, what's the difference, maybe I'll try that.”
And what about the next drink to come along? How far will makers go to stand out in a market where more than 500 new energy drinks were launched worldwide this year?
“At what point do you say caffeine is not a drug that can have adverse side effects in a healthy person?” says Christine McPherson, a district nurse with De Soto public schools. “You're talking 280 milligrams.”
Controversy was strategic to setting the product apart from the horde of new drinks introduced this year, says Jamey Kirby, senior partner at Redux Beverages, with offices in Las Vegas and Murrieta, Calif., and founder of Cocaine.
But even Kirby was “flabbergasted” by the clamor Cocaine created.
“The politicians are saying we are glorifying drug use, that we're desensitizing the youth to the dangers of drugs; they're calling for stores to boycott it,” Kirby says. “Where did the coke in Coca-Cola come from? Why aren't they banning Coca-Cola? Our name is right there on the edge but I don't think it falls over the edge.”
It's marketed as the “legal alternative” and described by creators as tasting like a carbonated atomic fireball. Each can has 280 milligrams of caffeine, twice the amount in a regular cup of coffee.
Ana Alzarez of the Flamingo Mini Mart in Naples, Fla., has been carrying Cocaine for about a month.
“It's selling very well here in Naples. We are selling more than Red Bull,” says Alzarez, who doesn't like the taste of energy drinks. “We're going to keep selling it. No one has complained yet.”
But other retailers are choosing their public image over profit.
“It was a no-brainer,” says Mike Thornbrugh, spokesman for QuikTrip. “We don't see how in the world you can be a responsible retailer and sell a commodity that glamorizes illegal drugs.”
Most health-care professionals recommend a daily dose of no more than 250 to 300 milligrams of caffeine. Beyond that, the side effects can set in: the jitteriness, possible dehydration, the jump in heart rate, increased blood pressure.
Energy drinks, with caffeine levels from 75 milligrams and up, likely aren't harmful if used sparingly. But it's the repeated use, the two or three cans at a time, that can wear on a body.
After the initial jolt, people crash.
“And once they fall, they fall pretty hard,” says pediatrician Sarah Hampl, who works at Children's Mercy Hospital in the department of general pediatrics. “Their blood sugar drops, the caffeine wears off and they feel really bad.”
Cardiologist Brian Weiford, from the University of Kansas Hospital, says people react to high levels of caffeine differently. And without knowing what's in each of the drinks, there's a risk in consuming any.
“I wouldn't want my kids having any of these,” Weiford says.
For now, many young people know they want to keep consuming these drinks.
Jessica Montes, 23, who was at Moody's Coffeehouse in Kansas City, drinks Rockstar for its “gummy bear” taste.
And Jignesh Patel, a University of Missouri-Kansas City sophomore, prefers Red Bull – “it mixes with vodka perfectly.”
But he's all for trying the Cocaine drink.
“All students will probably try it just for fun,” says Patel.
© 2006, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.