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Teens drawn to, at risk from caffeine highs of energy drinks

Published: Monday, Feb. 14 2011 11:59 p.m. MST

High school students are continuing to purchase energy drinks, like those pictured here, that contain high levels of caffeine.

Mike Terry , Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Healthier choices have been placed in the vending machines at many schools, but that doesn't mean students are buying them. Their money seems to be going elsewhere, and energy drinks are among the increasingly more popular items.

"Energy drinks gave me a hyperactive sense that I liked. I was more jittery and jumpy and hanging out with friends, that was funny," said 17-year-old Cameron Frankel. He said he used to drink about 10 energy drinks a day, but has since stopped completely and is trying to take better care of his body.

"I found out that I really couldn't go very long on them," he said. The Taylorsville High School senior realized that the short-lived caffeine buzz he obtained from energy drinks was affecting his fitness level.

To combat America's unhealthy habits, the American Heart Association, with the William J. Clinton Foundation, founded the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in 2005 to encourage better vending and nutrition policies at schools nationwide. In cooperation with the alliance — which aims to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015 — Granite School District has revamped its policies.

Fifty percent of what is now offered in Granite's drink vending machines is some form of water, sports drinks and fruit drinks, with fewer carbonated and caffeinated beverages available to teens. But spokesman Ben Horsley said kids are still getting it somewhere.

"We want to provide healthy options but it is up to them whether they make those choices," he said.

While sugary sodas are not available at school, smaller, single-serving-sized candy bars and preservative-laden foods are still there. And substantially more teens are not only looking for a sugar fix, but are drawn to the intense caffeine hit they get from energy drinks and overall consumption of those is way up, according to a recent publication by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Researchers estimate that 30 to 50 percent of adolescents and young adults consume energy drinks, which contain high and unregulated amounts of caffeine and other substances that are causing serious adverse effects. Side effects from such drinks can be quite severe — one serving contains near or over the daily allowance of caffeine for children and teens — particularly for those with cardiac abnormalities, diabetes, seizures or mood and behavioral disorders, according to the report.

"These are not just like another soft drink," said Dr. Martin Caravati, medical director for the Utah Poison Control Center. He said the center has received about 23 calls about energy drinks in the past four months.

"The problem with these drinks is the high amounts of caffeine," he said, adding that it causes anxiousness and insomnia in some people. Caravati said educating people is the key to managing use of energy drinks, which are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because they are marketed as dietary supplements.

The more people know about the drinks, the better, he said, specifically in the vulnerable young populations.

The Granite district is collecting about $70,000 from vending machines placed at its nine high schools and 16 junior high schools. Before implementing new vending policies, each school in the district was bringing in about that same amount, which has resulted in a loss for the schools, Horsley said.

"There has been about a 10-fold drop in vending revenue because they're not purchasing from us," he said. "We have a desire to provide healthy options to students, but the kids who want these things will get them wherever they can."

More students are leaving campus at lunchtime and frequenting nearby convenience stores, which have likely caused those off-campus locations to "see a boom in business," Horsley said.

"It's pretty easy to get a hold of them," Frankel said. But now that he's boasting a better body, he sticks to water, juice and the occasional mild tea — but "mostly water."

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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