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Generation Wired

[whitespace] Kid with cola
Michael Amsler

The brand names are pulsing with power: Surge, Zapped, Full Speed, Outburst. And Josta is laced with both caffeine and the pick-me-up herb guarana, which is hyped as "raw, primal power." Is it any wonder caffeine consumption is on the rise among kids?

By Helen Cordes

ANYONE REMEMBER when caffeine was off-limits for children? ("It'll stunt your growth!") These days constraints on caffeine consumption for kids and young teens are nonexistent. Kids are having caffeine early and often--high-octane Mountain Dew is the preferred soda of the under-6 set--and in much bigger doses than before. Caffeine Inc. is raking it in, often targeting teens and younger kids, and while Coca-Cola's polar bears get the attention, studies showing the negative consequences of child caffeination are virtually ignored.

Look at fast-food joints, convenience stores, and restaurants, where many kids get up to 40 percent of their meals. It's common to see young children and teens downing "big gulp"-size caffeinated sodas or lining up for seconds and thirds at refillable soda stations. These megadrinks can pack a wallop equal to three cups of strong coffee--all bombarding a body that may be one-half or two-thirds adult size. And kids are eagerly reaching for the aggressively marketed new drinks that are at or near the legal limit for added caffeine (which is 6 milligrams per ounce) such as Coca-Cola's Surge (51 milligrams in 12 ounces), Pepsi-Cola's Josta (58), Jolt (72), the caffeinated herbal drink XTC (70), and others.

And kids may get a near double-dose of caffeine if they buy these juiced-up drinks at vending machines, which increasingly offer only 20-ounce bottles instead of 12-ounce cans.

Check out school cafeterias: Kids are bypassing milk for cans of Coke (45 milligrams), Pepsi (37), Mountain Dew (55) and Sunkist (40), bought at school pop machines or served at the fast-food franchises now at 13 percent of the nation's schools. Glance at family shopping carts: Sodas are the best-selling product at grocery stores--$11.7 billion annually in sales. And four of the five most popular soft drinks in the United States are caffeinated, with No. 4 Sprite the sole exception.

The most conservative estimates have children and teens guzzling more than 64 gallons of soda a year--an amount that has tripled for teens since 1978, doubled for the 6-11 set, and increased by a quarter for under-5 tots, according to a 1994 survey by the Agriculture Department.

The top drinkers, teen boys, pop open an average of three sodas a day.

And check out the local coffee shop. For tons of teens, and kids as young as elementary school, the local Starbucks or its equivalent has become the favored hangout. Many juvenile customers scorn decaf in the sugary coffee drinks they prefer. (Twelve ounces of a regular Starbucks coffee contains around 190 milligrams of caffeine. Since coffee is naturally caffeinated--sodas have caffeine added to them--it is not regulated for caffeine content.) Caffeine is even showing up on the playing field: Competitive-minded parents are bringing along high-caffeine drinks or packets of the new carbo- and caffeine-packed "sports goo" to help give their young athletes a winner's edge.

Why is "Generation Next" (as Pepsi puts it) downing caffeine at rates never seen before? One likely reason is that most parents are unaware of the health problems associated with caffeine. Solid scientific research has linked caffeine to anxiety, respiratory ailments, possible bone loss, and other health worries--although there has been slight coverage of this.

But what turned children on to caffeine in the first place? Kids' desire to get wired didn't simply occur as a mass switch in personal preference. The major caffeine suppliers to kids have been throwing millions into advertising and giveaways. Mountain Dew, for example, has distributed half a million free pagers to kids, who can use them to call friends--but only after they read the Mountain Dew promo that automatically pops up.

The soft-drink companies have also spent tens of millions placing their products and ads where youths are a captive audience: 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. And the soda barons have used dozens of other sly marketing ploys, such as plastering ads and logos on everything from free textbook covers to computer screensavers and mousepads.

Children have few places left to look where they are not exposed to a soft-drink product or logo.

The marketing strategy behind the new high-caffeine products is ingeniously suited to a generation confronting more family instability and a less secure job future, and dogged by stress and powerlessness. The brand names are pulsing with power: Surge, Zapped, Full Speed, Outburst. Josta, laced with both caffeine and the pick-me-up herb guarana, is hyped as "raw, primal power." Mountain Dew promises there's "nothing more intense than slammin' a Dew."

Caffeine, then, is the perfect antidote for youths facing the pressures of the '90s : It provides a boost of sociability, enhanced performance, and energy. Sure, there's the inevitable droop that follows, but that only reinforces the need to have more.

As for kids' rising attraction to coffee, that may be fueled by the proliferation of coffee shops--Starbucks opens another one every business day--and the perennial desire of kids to ape grown-up behavior. "Coffee bars are the only legal places for kids to hang out," says Gerald Celente, author of Trends 2000. Direct youth advertising by coffee interests is minimal, but the coffee industry is busy courting younger drinkers, who "love coffee products that are cold and sweet," notes Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Plenty of coffee parlors are expanding their sweet-drink menus. Starbucks, in partnership with Pepsi, is pushing its bottled creamy coffee drink Frappuccino and test-marketing Power Frappuccino, its coffee and carbo drink aimed at the hot youth-directed "energy drink" category.

ALL THE MAJOR caffeine suppliers insist they're not targeting the under-12 set. "Our core market is the teen and young adult category," says Pepsi spokesman Larry Jabblonsky. "We don't make a concerted effort to reach those under 12." And Chris Gimbl of Starbucks says, "We don't market to teenagers. However, anyone is welcome at our stores." But Terry Barker, whose company makes the caffeinated water Krank2O, notes, "The only market available is to start them out younger and younger." (He hastens to add that Krank2O markets to those 15 and older.)

Barker's remark reflects economic reality. For the market bulge of the century--baby boomers--caffeine is becoming something to avoid. Coffee drinking is on the rise only for those between ages 15 and 24, while java jiving takes a steady dive thereafter. Ditto for soft-drink consumption: Statistics show that teens and young adults slug the most, with soda sipping sinking slowly from there.

In Barker's view, caffeine suppliers are following the example of another supplier of an addictive substance: the tobacco companies. "The goal is to perpetuate the market," he says.

Indeed, there's evidence that the caffeine lobby has borrowed a tactic or two from the nicotine gang. Ask industry representatives about the health consequences of children consuming caffeine, and they frequently point to two "non-profit research organizations"--the International Life Sciences Institute and the International Food Information Council. Both are funded by major food, beverage, and agribusiness multinationals, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and major coffee suppliers Kraft and Procter & Gamble.

Both 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 ILSI board member and a Harvard School of Medicine professor emeritus. "Nothing has been shown to be harmful."

Asked about a 6-year-old ingesting the quantum dose of caffeine in a "big gulp," Dr. Richard Adamson, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the National Soft Drink Association, asserts, "People generally don't drink big gulps all in one sitting." (Kids ration their big gulps?) Asked why caffeine is necessary in sodas, he says, "It's there solely for the taste. Just take a sip of caffeine-free Pepsi and then a sip of regular Pepsi. Try it! You'll be able to tell!"

(I did! I can't!)

Asked if there is any health value to caffeinated soda, Adamson claims, "They're a good source of water. Kids need lots of water." Reminded that caffeine is a diuretic, which causes water to be excreted more rapidly, Adamson grudgingly agrees.

DESPITE soothing words from the industry, a few outfits are taking a stand against the rising use of caffeine by children. Last summer, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require the posting of caffeine amounts on labels, it cited several caffeine-related risks: miscarriage, osteoporosis, insomnia, anxiety, addiction.

Children, the group noted, can suffer some of these adverse effects, and they face additional risks: Caffeine may threaten their developing bone mass and, when sodas are substituted for more nutritional food, impede their overall nutrition. (The FDA was scheduled to respond by February but informed the CSPI it needed more time to investigate concerns and studies cited in the petition.) Last year the American Medical Association also registered concerns about the new high-caffeine drinks that are "being aggressively advertised" to a youth audience and passed a resolution calling for caffeine labeling.

In perhaps the only public expression of concern from the industry, 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, and they might not be ones the industry likes."

Guidelines may indeed be necessary. For years, independent scientific researchers have been urging caution. Their concerns fall into two categories: how children react behaviorally to the addictive and stimulant qualities of caffeine, and how caffeine affects children's bodies. Children respond to caffeine as do adults, according to a number of studies. A low dose 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 that the 8- to 13-year-olds who regularly consumed high doses were judged more restless by teachers--in fact, one third were hyperactive enough to meet the criteria for attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, or ADHD. When low-caffeine-consuming children were given a daily dose equivalent to that of their higher-consuming peers, parents reported that they became more emotional, inattentive, and restless.

"Children for whom there is a concern about anxiety should not have caffeine," Rapoport says.

Hofstra University psychology associate professor Mitchell Schare studied almost 400 preschoolers from upper-income New York City suburbs in 1994 and 1995. The heavier-caffeine consumers among the children, who had the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee daily, had more "uncontrollable energy," Schare notes. He concludes, "I believe the effects of caffeine can potentially mimic ADHD and be misdiagnosed as ADHD."

These kids' chief caffeine source was, surprisingly, iced tea, which many parents may not realize contains caffeine.

Like adults, kids who are regular caffeine drinkers suffer ill effects when they don't get a regular shot. In a recent study by Stanford neurobiologist Avram Goldstein, fifth and sixth graders at a suburban Denver school who were deprived of daily caffeine reported having symptoms such as trouble thinking clearly, not feeling energetic, and getting angry easily.

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, who did pioneer research on caffeine and adults in the '60s. And caffeine-dependent children usually have a handicap adults don't: They can't guarantee a daily fix the way adults can, because they don't typically have the money and mobility to get caffeine
at will.

Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor and caffeine expert Roland Griffiths worries about this on-again, off-again situation. "A lot of kids already have chaotic lives. Do children need a pharmacological destabilizer on top of that?" he asks.

Caffeine can also be harmful to children's growing bodies, since it can cause excess excretion of calcium and magnesium, says Gail Frank, nutrition professor at California State University, Long Beach, and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She says, "There's a danger that children won't reach sufficient bone mass." Children are less likely now to replace calcium by drinking milk--consumption has plummeted in recent years, largely because kids are downing soft drinks instead.

The phosphoric acid in cola beverages may be particularly detrimental to children's health; there is evidence that it can cause bone fractures, notes Cornell University Medical College registered dietitian Barbara Levine. Phosphoric acid can also break down tooth enamel. And common children's ailments like ear infections and respiratory irritations that produce colds, bronchitis, and asthma may be exacerbated by caffeinated, carbonated drinks, according to Dr. William Cochran, pediatric gastroenterologist at Penn State's Geisinger Clinic and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics nutrition committee. Caffeine and carbonated bubbles can trigger "refluxing," in which a sphincter muscle allows the acidy contents of the upper stomach to back up and irritate portions of the respiratory tract. In both his research and his pediatric practice, Cochran has found that most children with chronic ear infections and respiratory illnesses have refluxing problems.

AS KIDS GUZZLE caffeinated and other sodas at increasing rates, researchers like Frank worry about potential problems that won't be seen until kids mature. "What will happen when millions of children with much higher rates of caffeine consumption grow up?" Frank asks. "We may see increasing rates of osteoporosis."

She also points to caffeine's ability to raise blood pressure: "We just don't know the long-term effects, and we need to find out."

Meanwhile, Frank recommends that children and teens stay well under 100 milligrams of caffeine a day, which amounts to one or two cans of soda, depending on the caffeine content.

Many who'd like to see a decline in children's caffeine consumption know the task is not easy. "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." (For more information on the center's petition to the FDA, see CSPI's website, www.cspinet.org.)

The presence of sodas and their marketing in schools is an obvious target. "Schools are selling off students to soda," charges Marianne Manilov of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland. "Is this really what we want in public schools?" But efforts to restrict soda sales in school face much opposition from soda conglomerates' lobbying guns as well as from some school officials who like receiving a cut of vending-machine revenues.

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," reports an angry Martha Hill, who heads a county school-lunch program and is president-elect of the American School Food Service Association.

For concerned parents, home education--teaching children that caffeine is a drug and should be seen as such--is probably the best option. That's not what the executives at Coke and Pepsi want. But they are pushing a drug on pre-adults, one that may have serious health consequences for a whole generation. And that view--not the glitzy marketing and snazzy ads--is the real thing.

This article, here in abridged and slightly amended form, originally appeared in The Nation.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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