There’s been some talk about a correlation between drinking energy drinks and drug use. The connection emerged with findings from a study by health researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park. It was originally published in a scientific journal in November 2016 but wasn’t released online until August 2017. The results indicate that persistently drinking energy drinks could predispose adults between the ages of 21 and 25 to alcohol, cocaine and non-medical prescription stimulant (NPS) use.
About the Research
Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the UMD researchers began the study in 2004. It included 1,099 students who were in ongoing studies at large public universities. The students participated in at least one annual assessment of their energy drink consumption patterns. They were then categorized into three patterns based on how many days out of the year that they had an energy drink:
- Infrequent use was one to 11 days.
- Occasional use was 12 to 51 days.
- Frequent use was more than 52 days.
In the fourth year, the students estimated their quantity and frequency of weekly caffeinated beverage consumption aside from energy drinks over the past year. The same year and in the eighth year of the study, the researchers examined past-year frequency of alcohol, cigarette, cocaine, marijuana, and NPS use.
With a baseline established, the researchers adapted a version of the conduct disorder screener for detecting childhood conduct problems. This allowed them to create four trajectory groups for the likelihood that the participants would drink energy drinks:
- Non-use consistently stayed at or near zero.
- Desisting steadily declined.
- Intermediate ranged from 33 to 53 percent.
- Persistent was high every year.
The Likelihood of Future Drug Use
Of the participants, 20.6 percent were in the non-use group, 10.6 percent were in the desisting group, 17.4 percent were in the intermediate category and 51.4 percent were in the persistent category. The study also found that fewer students continued drinking energy drinks as they got older. However, those in the persistent group still had a likelihood of 87 percent or higher for drinking energy drinks.
The UMD researchers also found that sensation seeking and problems with behavior and conduct were related to a higher likelihood of having energy drinks. The non-use category had the lowest risk, while the persistent group had the highest.
In addition, those in the non-use group had the lowest risk for future drug use except for alcohol and other caffeine products. Drinking these products was lowest among students in the intermediate category, but they were still at a higher risk for cocaine and NPS use. The persistent category had the highest risk for alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, NPS and tobacco use. Meanwhile, the risk for alcohol, cocaine and NPS use declined for the desisting group.
A Unique Contributor to Negative Health Results
The relationship between drinking energy drinks and drug use seems to be specific and unrelated to consuming caffeine in other ways such as drinking coffee. Researchers believe that the reason is the higher concentration of caffeine in energy drinks.
The Food and Drug Administration limits 12-ounce soda beverages to containing 72 milligrams of caffeine. However, it doesn’t cap the amount of caffeine in energy drinks. It also doesn’t require companies to list the caffeine content on their labels. Those that list it do so voluntarily.
The FDA’s non-regulation of energy drinks is a surprise considering the health issues that arise after drinking them. Aside from the potential for future drug use, they can cause cardiac arrest in people with long QT syndrome, a congenital disorder.
The Outcome Isn’t Always Substance Use
Although this study shows that persistent energy drink consumption is related to drug use, not all young adults develop a substance use disorder. Some people are more vulnerable to the effects because of their biology, which is a product of their environment and genes.
The UMD researchers recognize these biological factors and insist that more studies are necessary to further detail the correlation between drinking energy drinks and drug use. In particular, they need to determine if there’s a similar risk among teens between 12 and 17 years old because about one-third of them consume energy drinks.
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