Could Guzzling Energy Drinks Lead To Future Substance Use?

By Keri Blakinger 08/14/17

A new study examined whether energy drinks put young adults at a higher risk for developing substance use issues.

male student studying with crashed drink can and books at table

Sure, Red Bull gives you wings, but could it also pave the way for substance use disorders? 

A new study out of the University of Maryland School of Public Health found that young adults who regularly down energy drinks were much more likely to use coke and prescription stimulants, and had an elevated risk of alcohol use disorder. 

The five-year study of 1,099 college students controlled for the effects of demographics, sensation-seeking behaviors, other caffeine consumption and prior substance use—and thus singled out energy drinks as the problem.

“The results suggest that energy drink users might be at heightened risk for other substance use, particularly stimulants,” Amelia Arria, associate professor of behavioral and community health and director of the university’s Center on Young Adult Health and Development, said in a statement. 

“Because of the longitudinal design of this study, and the fact that we were able to take into account other factors that would be related to risk for substance use, this study provides evidence of a specific contribution of energy drink consumption to subsequent substance use.”

About half of the study participants had a “persistent trajectory,” meaning that they sustained their energy drink-guzzling ways over time. That group was a lot more likely to be using stimulants and drinking heavily by 25. Those in the “intermediate trajectory” also had an increased risk of such risky behavior, unlike those who drank less over time or never drank the highly-caffeinated concoctions at all. 

It’s not clear what biological mechanism connects energy drink use with later stimulant use, but Arria suggested it as a possible avenue for further research. “Future studies should focus on younger people, because we know that they too are regularly consuming energy drinks,” Arria added. “We want to know whether or not adolescents are similarly at risk for future substance use.”

Arria also suggested possible policy interventions to help minimize the negative long-term impact.

"Energy drinks are not as regulated as some other beverages. One policy implication is to consider options for regulating the maximum amount of caffeine that can be put in an energy drink." she said, according to USA Today. 

"Parents need to be aware of those risks when their child or adolescent or young adult wants to make a decision about what sort of beverage to consume. They need to be aware of the potential risk."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.