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Caffeine Products Might Be Dangerous - Gale in Context

Popular energy drinks are suspected to have caused the deaths of three teens—as well as serious side effects such as irregular heartbeat and amnesia in 35 other Canadians—since 2003, according to reports filed with Health Canada.

The three male teens, two 15-year-olds and an 18-year-old, died after drinking Red Bull, which appears in more side-effect reports than any other similar product.

In one of these cases, the death of a 15-year-old in 2006, Monster Energy was also consumed.

"I am not shocked to hear of the deaths that are coming to the surface now," said Jim Shepherd of Toronto, whose 15-year-old son Brian died Jan. 6, 2008, after drinking a can of Red Bull during a paintball tournament. He collapsed at the awards banquet that night.

Shepherd said the coroner ruled Brian died from sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. He believes Red Bull contributed to his son's irregular heartbeat and death.

Health Canada and the energy drink companies said the side-effect reports show only a suspected connection between a product and side effect but no medical proof that one caused the other. (A report is the opinion of the consumer, pharmacist, doctor or nurse that a drug or energy drink is suspected to have caused a side effect.)

A Red Bull spokesperson referred questions to the Canadian Beverage Association, which represents energy and other drink companies.

"Because a product or ingredient is listed on an adverse events report it in no way confirms or even implies a causal link," said beverage association spokeswoman Stephanie Baxter. "There can be a multitude of items listed on each report and a full review of the event is required to determine which, if any, played a role."


Last week [November 2012], reports emerged of 13 deaths in the U.S. possibly linked to 5-hour Energy, a caffeinated energy shot also sold in Canada.

The Star found five cases of Canadians suffering serious side effects suspected to have been caused by 5-hour Energy, including an 18-year-old who also consumed at least two other brands of energy drinks when he experienced "delusion" and a hallucination.

Nova Scotia's professional doctors association asked the province earlier this year to ban the sale of the [caffeinated energy] drinks to people younger than 19.

A spokeswoman for Living Essentials, the Michigan-based company that distributes 5-hour Energy, said in a statement last week that it takes reports of potential adverse reactions seriously and that it was not aware of any deaths proven to have been caused by the "energy shot intended for busy adults."

In Canada, some provinces are looking at putting limits on the sale of energy drinks. A New Brunswick private member's bill, which reached second reading earlier this year, would require stores that sell energy drinks to display warning signs with the drinks.

Nova Scotia's professional doctors association asked the province earlier this year to ban the sale of the drinks to people younger than 19.

"That would exclude children and youth because we feel they're at particular risk of consumption of high amounts of caffeine," said Dr. John Finley, president of Doctors Nova Scotia.

The energy drinks include, among other ingredients, caffeine, taurine, and vitamins B6 and B12. On the cans, near the mention of "recommended dose" and list of "medicinal" ingredients, are cautions that the drink is not recommended for children or pregnant women.

In each of the serious side-effect reports where energy drinks are mentioned as the suspected cause, the consumer either went to the hospital, suffered a disability or life-threatening condition, or died.

Three-quarters of the reports found by The Star were filed in just the last few years.

California-based Monster Beverage Corporation said its Monster Energy drinks—listed as the suspected cause in six serious side-effect reports—"comply fully with all laws and regulations in each of the more than 70 countries in which they are sold."

A company spokesperson told The Star: "From the information that we have seen, there is no causation in any of these (Canadian) reports. There is no real link."

The company points out that the labelling says the energy drinks are not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.

The Canadian Beverage Association said that advertising and marketing for the products target people between 18 and 34. "We do not target teens, we don't sell energy drinks in schools," said association spokeswoman Baxter.

The association said that it hired third-party experts to review the Canadian side-effect reports associated with energy drinks. "They came back (in 2011) and basically said there was no sound scientific evidence and that it wasn't possible to draw any conclusions regarding them," Baxter told The Star.

One of the reports was prepared for the beverage association by Dr. Jeffrey Carson, who wrote: "Any potential link between the death of the two 15-year-olds and possible energy drink consumption requires additional evaluation. Both cases were determined to be 'unassessable' by Health Canada because of lack of information."

The document was prepared before the third Canadian death.

Other energy drinks listed in Health Canada's database as the suspected cause of side effects are Rockstar Energy and NOS.

"We are not aware of any reports of fatalities associated with consuming any of our company's energy drink brands. We take the safety and quality of the beverages we sell very seriously," a spokesperson for Coca-Cola, the Canadian distributor of NOS, which appears in four serious side-effect reports, told The Star.

Rockstar Energy did not respond to several messages left by The Star.


Of the 38 Canadian cases of serious side effects suspected to have been caused by energy drinks, The Star found 15 cases that involved people 19 years old and younger.

The Star also found:

  • In 19 cases, a Red Bull drink was listed as the suspected cause of the side effect. In three of those reports, alcohol was also listed as the suspected cause of the side effect.
  • 13 consumers experienced palpitations.
  • Amnesia and convulsions were each cited in three reports.

Health Canada is monitoring a U.S. Food and Drug Administration review of reports linked to 5-hour Energy, said Adam Gibson, interim director general of the natural health products directorate.

"Within the Canadian (5-hour Energy) reports, there were no deaths," he said. "So seeing deaths coming out of the U.S. is something we'd want to check ... obviously a death is something we take very seriously, or any serious adverse reaction."

Gibson said the Canadian reports of side effects suspected to have been caused by 5-hour Energy have been investigated, but said details of the investigation were not immediately available.

Health Canada says that under new rules announced in 2011, the drinks cannot exceed a certain amount of caffeine, and product labelling must include the caffeine level as well as an advisory not to mix the drink with alcohol.

"I really think they should ban the sale (of the drinks) to minors to protect them," said Brian's father, Jim Shepherd. "There should be point-of-sale warning signage in the stores and these products should be in a separate area of the store."

DMU Timestamp: February 20, 2024 23:51

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