Are Energy Drinks The New Gateway Drug?

Years ago, if you were tired and wanted a quick burst of energy, you would brew a cup of coffee. After waiting for it to cool a bit, you’d then drink it down and go about your day. It was simple, easy and pretty much the only way to get a dose of caffeine in the US for decades. That is, until Jolt Cola was introduced in the mid-80s. It was touted as having double the caffeine content of a normal cup of coffee. Since then, countless energy drinks have stomped into the marketplace with frosted tips and a radical ‘tude, including: Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, Monster, and Nos. It’s easy to open your fridge, grab a can, pop it open, and guzzle it down. Bam! Instant energy. But, just like with coffee, we start to build up tolerances to energy drinks and we eventually need more and more high caffeine drinks to achieve the desired, wired effects. Where does it end? Cocaine, obviously. Don’t believe me? A startling new study linked the two and it’s not good news for habitual energy drink imbibers.

Back in October, we wrote about a study that claimed that combining alcohol and energy drinks was the equivalent of doing a few lines of cocaine. It was based on a study from Purdue University in which mice were given a combination of alcohol and energy drinks. While this new study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health (published in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence) doesn’t go into greater detail on this, it does make a strong correlation between energy drink use and the potential of future drug use. Instead of just getting the effects of cocaine, regular energy drink users might actually turn to hard drugs.

Researchers studied 1,099 adults between the ages of 21-25 over a period of five years and found that participants who regularly drank energy drinks were much more likely to move on to hard drugs like cocaine as well as prescription stimulants, and were more likely to abuse alcohol than those who didn’t partake in energy drinks.

“The results suggest that energy drink users might be at heightened risk for other substance use, particularly stimulants,” lead researcher Dr. Amelia Arria told UMD Right Now. “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.”

All of the participants were college students (pretty much the main demographic for energy drinks). They were asked to complete a survey at various times throughout the five years. More than 50% of the participants continued to drink heavy quantities of energy drinks throughout the study. Researchers referred to this as “persistent trajectory” and they were shown to have a much higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse by the time they turned 25. It should be noted that neither cigarettes or marijuana usage were shown to increase based on the amount on energy drinks the participants consumed.

Researchers noted that more studies need to be done to fully understand just why this correlation between energy drinks and cocaine exists. “Future studies should focus on younger people, because we know that they too are regularly consuming energy drinks,” said Dr. Arrias. “We want to know whether or not adolescents are similarly at risk for future substance use.”

This is definitely something to keep an eye, especially as you’re reaching for your second Red Bull of the day.