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School board may ban energy drinks

 

Nirvi Shah

Miami Herald
March 23, 2008

 

 

Four teenagers from Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston were taken to a hospital emergency room this month, their hearts racing and bodies dripping with sweat.

The substance that sent them there was the energy and weight-loss drink Redline, which packs all the caffeine of coffee, and more: Its half-dozen added ingredients are claimed to lift mood and energy levels, lower appetite -- even improve memory.

The temporary scare -- the students are fine now -- has Broward County School Board members ready to ban high-octane energy drinks from school campuses.

''You see something like a 12-year-old drinking one of these, and it's really scary,'' board member Beverly Gallagher said at a meeting.

Board members last week took the first steps toward putting Redline and drinks like it off-limits on campus. Students already cannot buy the beverages at school in Broward or Miami-Dade County, but they can bring them on campus -- as one of the teenagers at Falcon Cove did. The board is working on an advisory for parents.

The moves reflect growing national concern over minors' access to the highly popular energy drinks, which 7-Eleven reports are the fastest growing item in its cold-beverage case. Laws banning their sale to minors are under discussion in Kentucky and Idaho, although a similar proposal died recently in Maine. A California government health agency is considering mandatory warning labels.

''Broward is probably on the leading edge of this,'' said Jeff Wahlen, president of the Florida School Board Attorneys Association. ``Banning things that make it difficult for kids to concentrate and study is, I think, clearly in bounds.''

An attorney for the Tallahassee-area Leon County School Board, Wahlen said he is not aware of any bans.

Davie parent William Britton said his son Joseph, 14, one of the four Falcon Cove students, quickly recovered after his trip to the hospital. Britton said that Joseph can't have Redline and similar drinks at home and that his son thought his friend's drink was Monster, an energy drink not marketed as a weight-loss beverage.

Britton supports a ban: ``If they say children under 18 shouldn't be drinking them, you shouldn't be able to buy them.''

The ban has another key supporter: the chief executive officer of the Davie-based company that makes Redline.

VPX/Redline CEO Jack Owoc -- a former Broward teacher -- has offered the district $25,000 toward enacting a ban and says he supports prohibiting minors from buying the drinks.

''Energy drinks are made for adults only,'' he wrote in an e-mail. ``Children should derive enough energy from a healthy diet, daily exercise and eight hours or more of sleep.''

Labeled ''the ultimate energy rush,'' Redline is one of the few energy drinks that carry a warning against consumption by children. The product includes ingredients that can affect body chemistry, including evodiamine, a plant extract that can raise body temperature; yohimbine HCL, which can affect blood pressure; and 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan, which can boost levels of mood-altering serotonin in the brain.

''Children have super-high natural hormone levels that assist in physical and mental growth and maturation,'' Owoc said. ``These hormones provide an endless supply of natural energy. Further, children do not understand the concept of moderation and caution, which needs to be practiced with energy drinks. Kids always think if one is good, more must be better.''

The American Beverage Association supports banning the sale of energy drinks at school, but that's it.

''If parents allow teens to bring energy drinks to schools, that is their decision to make,'' said spokeswoman Tracey Halliday.

Federal law doesn't limit caffeine content or require listing it on labels, said Kimberly Rawlings, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration.

A 1958 FDA decision declared foods with 0.02 percent caffeine content to be ``generally regarded as safe.''

''Thus, companies may decide that other uses are generally regarded as safe and market on that basis,'' Rawlings said.

For more than a decade, organizations including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Medical Association have lobbied the FDA to force food manufacturers to list the amount of caffeine on product labels.

About a year ago, Doherty High in Colorado Springs banned energy drinks after two students went to the hospital after drinking an energy drink called Spike Shooter, a district spokeswoman said.

An eight-ounce can of Spike Shooter has 300 milligrams of caffeine -- more than six times the amount in a 12-ounce Diet Coke, and more than double the amount in Redline.

The effects of caffeine on children have not been studied extensively.

Beyond caffeine and other energy boosters in the drinks, though, some see the nonalcoholic drinks as a gateway to alcoholic versions.

Just a few weeks before the Falcon Cove students got sick from Redline, energy drinks were discussed at a meeting of the United Way Broward County Commission on Substance Abuse. Members passed around a can of the alcoholic energy drink Sparks, which comes in a silver can and resembles orange soda, but is 6 percent alcohol and caffeinated.

''It looks just like a soda'' despite the alcohol content, said the School Board's Gallagher, a panel member.

The United Way commission recently issued a warning about alcoholic energy drinks, executive director Pat Castillo said.

As the Broward school board works on its energy-drink ban, it is also creating a warning for parents about the short-term effects of energy drinks on children.

But Joe Melita, the school district's chief investigator, says that giving the drinks taboo status could make them more enticing.

'Sometimes, the more you say, `Don't take it,' the more they're going to take it,'' said Melita, who was once Redline CEO Owoc's English teacher at Cooper City High. ``I think the onus falls on the company -- like cigarettes and everything else -- to have it on the label. We'll teach them how to read the label.''


 

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