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The “Disturbing Link” between Energy Drinks and Teen Addiction

Teen addiction

Have you seen the new scary headlines about energy drinks? “Energy-drink consumption may lead to cocaine use, study says” reads USA Today. “Are Energy Drinks the Real Gateway Drugs to Substance Abuse?” screams social website Care2.

So what is the real story? If you see a Red Bull or a Monster in your kid’s hand, should you panic?

The University of Maryland Study

This recent wave of news about energy drinks stems from the recent publication of research conducted by scientists at the University of Maryland. The study, which appears in the October issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, tracked almost 1,100 young adults for a five-year period starting in their first year in college. Participants were periodically asked to record their consumption of energy drinks, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and nonmedical use of prescription medications over the previous year.

The researchers divided the sample participants into four groups based on their use of energy drinks: Persistent, Intermediate, Desisting, and Non-Use. Just over half of the adults fell into the Persistent Use category, and about one in six were slotted into the Intermediate Use category.

According to the results of the study, participants who demonstrated persistent or intermediate use of energy drinks correlated strongly with cocaine use and nonmedical prescription drug use at age 25. Also, those in the persistent category were found to have an increased risk of an alcohol use disorder such as dependence or addiction by the time they turned 25 years old. (No such relationship was found between energy drinks and tobacco or marijuana.)

Connection Does Not Equal Causality

While the results of this research may raise some eyebrows, it is important to remember that this was a simple statistics-based study. The scientists did not do any biologic testing on the participants to assess the effects of energy drinks or any of the other tested substances, so it is impossible to compare the physical or neurological changes experienced by these individuals.

Furthermore, one axiom of statistical studies like these is that “correlation does not equal causation” unless the study specifically designs its methods to determine causation (which this study did not do). As a result, the findings only identify a relationship between energy drinks and cocaine, alcohol, and prescription drug abuse, but it cannot determine details about the nature of that relationship.

Does substantial energy drink consumption lead to alcohol or drug abuse? Does a person’s biological susceptibility to addiction in general result in similar cravings for energy drinks, cocaine, alcohol, and/or opioids? The answers to these and related questions are still unknown. In fact, the authors of the study say exactly that in their conclusions: “More research is needed to understand the mechanisms underlying the connection between ED [energy drink] and substance use.”

Teen addiction

Energy Drink Consumption: Harmless or Harmful?

To be sure, future research might solidify the link between energy drinks and substance abuse. However, it is also plausible that the notion of energy drinks being a “gateway drug” could be debunked eventually.

In the meantime, it is wise to view energy drink consumption as one of a myriad of possible indicators that a teen or young adult might be addicted to alcohol or drugs. In other words, the mere sight of a young person drinking an energy drink (or even more than one) should not be cause for alarm on its own. However, if your son or daughter exhibits numerous signs that he or she might be dependent on or addicted to illicit substances, you should confront him or her about your suspicions and consider getting help from a medical professional or substance abuse treatment facility in your area.

If you or someone you love needs help with substance abuse, contact us immediately.

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