Energy drinks are a popular beverage among college students. Between keeping up with busy schedules and meeting heavy academic demands, students use energy drinks for work and play.
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration-banned ingredient called Yohimbe is believed to be illegally laced in almost every energy drink on the commercial market. Yohimbe allegedly caused the death of two teenagers in Allentown, Pa., earlier in the month, as well as that of a sophomore from the University of Arizona.
Yohimbe is an extract from an African tree bark that was used as an aphrodisiac to treat impotency long before medications like Viagra existed. It was under investigation by the FDA prior to these incidents and banned from over-the-counter diet pills in 1993.
“[Yohimbe] has been added to a number of different over-the-counter medications where they are not actually labeling it or describing the dangers of the drug,” Dr. José Missri said.
Missri is a cardiology specialist at Temple University Hospital and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Temple’s School of Medicine.
“It is a very dangerous drug because it’s not controlled by the FDA,” Missri said. “Some people respond differently to the drug. Frankly, I don’t see any advantages to using it at all. Serious toxic effects have been cardiac, where people develop severe high blood pressure or hypertension.”
“I don’t like energy drinks because they feel unnatural. My heart rate increases, and the way they taste is horrible,” junior communications major Sarah Weidner said. “I feel that something that speeds up your heart rate that much isn’t natural.”
Serious complications from the consumption of Yohimbe include heart problems like hypertension, severe high blood pressure, rapid heartbeats and other irregular heart rates. It can also lead to kidney failure and is associated with seizures, behavioral issues, tremors, episodes of anxiety and hallucinations.
Missri said in the most serious cases, Yohimbe can cause heart failure.
The less serious effects of Yohimbe include nausea and vomiting.
Missri said he was concerned that young people consume products in general without paying much attention to what is in them.
“Young people tend to do this because they really want to excel at sports or improve their performance without even having knowledge of any of these drugs,” he said.
Patricia Bertele, a sophomore university studies major, said she consumes energy drinks once every couple of weeks and has mixed them with alcohol and felt negative effects.
“I’ve seen people black out [from mixing alcohol and energy drinks],” she said.
Weidner said she is upset that the FDA is not more involved.
“The FDA doesn’t even regulate over-the-counter herbal supplements, so I’m not surprised they don’t regulate [energy drinks] either,” Weidner said.
The FDA provides a strategy for protecting food supply and managing recalls, but an FDA representative for food safety, who declined to disclose her name, said foods do not require FDA approval, and energy drinks fall into that category.
Pending the outcome of the ongoing FDA investigation, families of victims may have the right to take legal action.
Frank McClellan, a Temple health law professor, has substantial litigation experience in products liability.
“With most lawsuits, it will be filed as a personal injury action, which, for private individuals, is brought under state and civil law as a personal injury claim called a private tort lawsuit,” McClellan said.
In a Supreme Court case from earlier this month, the Court ruled it permissible for a person to file a lawsuit for not being informed about the dangers of a personal product.
“The manufacturer is obligated by law of federal stature to get approval before sharing the composition of a product. Once it’s approved, the company is supposed to admit any injuries to the FDA to determine if that personal product is allowed to remain effective,” McClellan said.
If a company fails to do this, then its products are subject to recall or can be discontinued.
McClellan said in terms of drugs and devices, the FDA requires companies to conduct animal studies followed by clinical trials.
There are three phases for the clinical investigations for untested drugs.
Phase one is the initial introduction of the new drug into humans to determine the metabolic and pharmacological actions of the drug and its side effects.
Phase two studies consist of initial controlled clinical studies.
Phase three studies further determine effectiveness and turn those findings into product labeling. According to the FDA, studies at this level could have up to several thousand human participants.
Weidner said she is unhappy with the lack of FDA intervention.
“I think that the company should be under probation where [the FDA] tests their products and looks at them a little more seriously,” she said. “Energy drinks are marketed like Coca-Cola, but I don’t think they should be considered that way because they are [a product] that has the effects of a drug.”
“I don’t usually drink [energy drinks] because they make me feel jittery,” said junior accounting major Allison Ashley. “But sometimes, when I get them for free, I do.”
The FDA does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Major energy drink companies like Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy also declined comment. Commercial energy drink companies have not issued any statements about the situation.
Missri emphasized the harmful effects of energy drinks over time on the heart and body.
“People have died over it,” he said.
Valerie Rubinsky and Joshua Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.