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Children Increasingly Consuming Caffeine


May-June 1998

Children are consuming caffeine earlier and more often than ever before, which may pose health threats, according to a report in The Nation magazine (Helen Cordes, "Generation Wired: Caffeine Is the New Drug of Choice for Kids," The Nation, April 27, 1998).

Conservative estimates have children and teens consuming more than 64 gallons of soda a year, an amount that has tripled since 1978, doubled for children ages 6 to 11, and increased by a quarter for children under five, according to a 1994 survey by the U.S Department of Agriculture. There are new drinks marketed to children that are at or near the legal limit for added caffeine (which is 6 milligrams per ounce) such as Coca-Cola's Surge®, Pepsi-Cola's Josta®, Jolt®, and the caffeinated herbal drink XTC®. Children have access to soft drinks through school vending machines or at the fast-food franchises now operating in 13% of the nation's schools. In addition, sodas are the bestselling product at America's grocery stores -- $11.7 billion annually in sales.

Coffee shops have become a favored hangout for some children. "Coffee bars are the only legal places for kids to hang out," says Gerald Celente, author of Trends 2000. The coffee industry is courting younger drinkers who "love coffee products that are cold and sweet," notes Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Coffee parlors are expanding their sweet-drink menus. Starbucks®, in partnership with Pepsi®, is marketing a bottled creamy coffee drink Frappuccino® and test-marketing Power Frappuccino®, a coffee and carbo drink aimed at the youth-directed "energy drink" category.

Each year, the major caffeine suppliers spend millions of dollars on advertising and giveaways. Mountain Dew®, the preferred soda of children under six years of age, has distributed half a million free pagers to kids. " Mountain Dew® promises there is "nothing more intense than slammin' a Dew." Josta® markets its "raw, primal power." High-caffeine sports drinks are marketed as giving young athletes a winner's edge.

Soft-drink companies have also spent millions of dollars placing their products and ads in schools. Dozens of school districts have been paid up to $11 million each by Coke® or Pepsi® for the assurance that only that company's products will be sold on school grounds, and for the right to put ads on gym walls and school buses. Other school marketing campaigns include ads and logos on free textbook covers, computer screensavers and mousepads.

Efforts to restrict soda sales in school face opposition from soda companies' lobbyists and some school officials who like the revenue. Last year a West Virginia law prohibiting the sale of sodas in schools during the school day was overturned after "a great deal of effort from the soft-drink lobby," said Martha Hill, who heads a county school-lunch program and is president-elect of the American School Food Service Association.

Terry Barker, whose company makes the caffeinated water Krank2O®, said, "The only market available is to start them out younger and younger." In Barker's view, caffeine suppliers are following the example of the tobacco companies. "The goal is to perpetuate the market," he says.

Caffeine industry representatives often address the health consequences of children consuming caffeine by referring to two nonprofit research organizations -- the International Life Sciences Institute (I.L.S.I.) and the International Food Information Council. However, both are funded by major food, beverage and agribusiness multinationals, including Coca-Cola®, Pepsi-Cola® and major coffee suppliers Kraft® and Procter & Gamble®. Both organizations refer questions to scientists who maintain that there is absolutely no cause for concern about caffeine and kids. "The studies are really quite reassuring," says Dr. Peter Dews, an I.L.S.I. board member and a Harvard School of Medicine professor emeritus. "Nothing has been shown to be harmful."

Last summer, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require the posting of caffeine amounts on beverage labels, citing several caffeine-related risks: miscarriage, osteoporosis, insomnia, anxiety, and addiction. Children, the group noted, can suffer some of these adverse effects, and caffeine may threaten their developing bone mass. The F.D.A. was scheduled to respond by February 1998 but informed CSPI it needed more time to investigate concerns and studies cited in the petition. "I think most parents simply don't realize how much caffeine kids get," says CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson. "Labeling products would at least give them some way to get the information and make some judgments."

In 1997 the American Medical Association registered concerns about the new high-caffeine drinks that are "being aggressively advertised" to a youth audience and passed Resolution 523 calling for caffeine labeling. Havis Dawson, editor of the trade magazine Beverage World, called on the industry a year ago to "pronounce clear guidelines for how much caffeine our children should drink." Since then, he's received no response. "If the industry doesn't come up with guidelines," he says, "someone else who's more scared of caffeine could do it."

A low dose of caffeine may aid concentration and task completion, but higher doses typically make children nervous, anxious, fidgety, frustrated and quicker to anger. National Institute of Mental Health child psychiatry researcher Judith Rapoport found 8-to-13-year-olds who regularly consumed high doses were judged more restless by teachers, and that one-third were hyperactive enough to meet the criteria for attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD). "Children for whom there is a concern about anxiety should not have caffeine," Rapoport says. Hofstra University psychology associate professor Mitchell Schare said, "I believe the effects of caffeine can potentially mimic ADHD and be misdiagnosed as ADHD."

Children who are regular caffeine drinkers may suffer ill effects when they do not get caffeine. In a recent study by Stanford neurobiologist Avram Goldstein, fifth and sixth graders at a Denver school deprived of daily caffeine reported having symptoms including trouble thinking clearly, not feeling energetic and getting angry. Even children who typically consume 28 milligrams a day (less than an average soda) felt symptoms. "Children can in fact become dependent on caffeine," notes Goldstein (A. Goldstein and M.E. Wallace, "Caffeine Dependence In Schoolchildren," Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, Vol. 5, pp. 388-392 (1997)).

Center for Science in the Public Interest - 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009-5728, Tel: (202) 835-9075, Fax: (202) 265-4954, E-mail: <>. For more information on the center's petition to the F.D.A., see C.S.P.I.'s Web site: <>.

International Life Sciences Institute - Research Foundation Nutrition Sciences, 1126 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036-4810, Tel: (202) 659-0074, Fax: (202) 659-3617.

International Food Information Council - 1100 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 430, Washington, DC 20036, Tel: (202) 296-6547, Fax: (202) 296-6540.

Judith Rapoport - National Institute of Mental Health, 5600 Fishers Lane, Room 10/6N240, Bethesda, MD 20892-8030, Tel: (301) 402-0296, Fax: (301) 496-6080.

Coca-Cola - Douglas Ivester, President, 1 Coca-Cola Plaza, Atlanta, GA 30313, Tel: (404) 676-2121.

Pepsi-Cola - Earl Graves, Vice-President, 3900 Pennbelt Place, Forestville, MD 20747, Tel: (301) 967-4620.

Starbucks - Orin Smith, President, P.O. Box 34067, P.O. Box, Seattle, WA 98124-1067, Tel: (206) 447-1575, Fax: (206) 623-7756.

Professor Mitchell Schare - Hofstra University, Department of Psychology, Hempstead, NY 11549, Tel: (516) 463-5009, Fax: (516) 463-6052.