I'd like to tell you about a little utopian community nestled in some faraway mountains where caffeine is heavily regulated. Everyone is 20 percent prettier than average and owns a modest home outright. There is no divorce or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. But such a place does not exist to serve as either a model or cautionary tale. A few European countries have moved toward regulation -- in Sweden, for example, many grocery stores do not sell energy drinks to people under 15. The United States is not likely to lead the charge into federal regulation tomorrow or next year, but when Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration, was asked last week, "Is it possible that FDA would set age restrictions for purchase?" he responded:
We have to be practical; enforcing age restrictions would be challenging. For me, the more fundamental questions are whether it is appropriate to use foods that may be inherently attractive and accessible to children as the vehicles to deliver the stimulant caffeine, and whether we should place limits on the amount of caffeine in certain products.
Taylor's comment came in the context of the FDA's announcement that, as the organization put it, "in response to a trend in which caffeine is being added to a growing number of products, the agency will investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents." It's a kind of nonchalant way to say that the organization in charge of making sure everything we eat and drink is safe for us is, decades into the mass marketing and sale of heavily caffeinated products without regulation to all U.S. markets, going to look into their safety.
The only time the FDA explicitly approved adding caffeine to anything was for use in colas in the 1950s, not long after increased caffeine replaced coca extract in soda -- coca Coke having been implicated in a string of rapes. Much as the Second Amendment did not anticipate M45 Quadmount anti-aircraft machine guns, that mid-century caffeine allowance by the FDA was not meant to speak to today's energy drinks: Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy, Monster, Full Throttle, CHARGE!, Neurogasm, Hardcore Energize Bullet, Facedrink, Eruption, Crakshot, Crave, Crunk, DynaPep, Rage Inferno, SLAP, and Venom Death Adder. Not to mention caffeinated water, gum, lip balm, socks (probably in development), etc.
In January, I asked "How much caffeine before I end up in the E.R.?" That was in response to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (a government behavioral health agency) that called energy drinks "a continuing public health concern" and noted that "energy drink-related" emergency department visits increased nearly tenfold between 2005 and 2011.