Noting the rise of caffeine-related deaths in recent years, the editor-in-chief of Journal of Caffeine Research has condemned the “regulatory vacuum” in the United States.
Jack E. James, a professor at Reykjavik University in Iceland and the National University of Ireland, argued in an editorial published Monday that researchers and lawmakers alike need to take a look at caffeine-related deaths and near-deaths.
“In 1911, acting on authority vested by the recently enacted Food and Drug Act, agents in the United States seized quantities of Coca-Cola syrup because they considered the caffeine content to be a significant threat to public health,” he wrote. “Following lengthy legal proceedings, Coca-Cola agreed to decrease the caffeine content of the drink, and further legal action ceased.”
“Armed with improved knowledge of caffeine toxicity and faced with extensive evidence of substantial harm to public health, today’s authorities appear more perplexed and less decisive than their counterparts of more than a century earlier,” James continued. “In light of current international befuddlement and inaction, legislators, policy makers, and regulators of today confront a stark question — how many caffeine-related fatalities and near-misses must there be before we regulate?”
Energy drinks in particular have received attention in recent years for their high caffeine content. The Food and Drug Administration has opened an investigation of deaths that may be linked to consumption of 5-hour Energy and Monster, two popular energy drinks. In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has reported that energy drink-related emergency room visits doubled over four years, rising from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011.
James said the high caffeine content of energy drinks and the fatalities were not a “mere coincidence.” The established lethal dose of caffeine is quite high at 10 grams, but the common stimulant can be fatal at lower doses under certain circumstances. Anecdotal reports suggest those with heart conditions are particularly vulnerable.
“Risk of fatal and non-fatal harm due to caffeine poisoning is increased by several characteristics of the drug and the circumstances surrounding its use, including its generally unregulated availability to children and adults alike,” James wrote.
[“Monster Drinks” by Toban Black via Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]