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The Problem with Labeling Energy Drinks 'Gateway Drugs'

A recent study finds a correlation between energy drink use and drug use in kids, but it's not that easy.

Thor Benson

Image: Daniel Juřena/Flickr

When I started smoking, drinking, and doing all the nefarious things I still do, my thought was never: “I never should have started drinking Red Bull.” However, a scientific study in the January/February Journal of Addiction Medicine suggests that energy drinks might actually be the gateway drug that opens the doors to all of these more sinister habits. Apparently, Red Bull gives you wings … and a drug problem.

The study analyzed almost 22,000 kids between eighth and twelfth grade. It found children who consumed energy drinks regularly were two to three times more likely to say they partook in other types of substance use than those that didn’t drink the stimulating beverages. Energy drinks are often combined with alcohol to make the flavor more appealing to young ones, and anyone who’s smoked too much weed knows you need a boost sometimes.

The stimulants found in the energy drinks are often quite exotic and produce their own drug-like effects. The Crunk energy drink was even created by Grey Goose vodka’s founder, and it contains an ingredient called “Horny Goat Weed.” Besides helping increase energy, the herb is known for its libido-enhancing and erectile dysfunction-fighting effects. Many energy drink companies include such ingredients so they can be labeled as “natural.”

The energy drink Tweaker contains Yohimbe. Yohimbe is the name of a tree found in Africa, and the bark that is cultivated contains the chemical Yohimbine. The chemical is also said to fight erectile dysfunction, and it can help increase blood flow to vagina, too. Not only will you have energy, but you’ll have a reason to use that energy.  

Rockstar contains Milk Thistle, which is commonly used to support the liver. The liver-assisting benefits include aid in fighting: “cirrhosis, jaundice, hepatitis, and gallbladder disorders,” according to Web MD. The benefits are debatable, as many natural cures are, but it’s safe to say Rockstar is better paired with alcohol than some of the other drinks out there. At least you can do damage and offer a little help at the same time.

One of the most overarching effects from any ingredient found in an energy drink is in Red Bull. Inositol, a carbohydrate, is “used for diabetic nerve pain, panic disorder, high cholesterol, insomnia, cancer, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, promoting hair growth, a skin disorder called psoriasis, and treating side effects of medical treatment with lithium.”

The study also points out that the kids that enjoy energy drinks, drugs, and all those fun things, also enjoy “sensation-seeking” and things that are “thrill-oriented.” It’s probably safe to say that doing drugs is just something that fits a certain personality type.

The problem with considering anything a gateway to other worse drugs, as the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences pointed out in 1999, is that it is often just evidence of circumstance. Energy drinks are the first available drug you encounter as a child, then typically alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana, and then however far down the rabbit hole you decide to go.

As Time magazine jested in 2010, “Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang members are probably more 104 times more likely to have ridden a bicycle as a kid than those who don’t become Hell’s Angels, but that doesn’t mean that riding a two-wheeler is a ‘gateway’ to joining a motorcycle gang.”