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July 31st, 2013
06:53 PM ET

Doctor warns of dangers of energy drinks for children

They go by names like "Rockstar", "Monster" and "Full Throttle." They promise to make you "feel good". Some of their commercials have even featured cute little cartoon characters.

Given all that, why would anyone would accuse energy drink companies of marketing to kids?

The Senate Commerce Committee called executives from Rockstar, Red Bull and Monster to Capitol Hill Wednesday for a hearing on whether their companies are intentionally targeting young people.

Health industry experts were also called in to testify about the potential side effects of too much caffeine on anyone under the age of 18.

Dr. William Spencer, a legislator from Suffolk County, New York, successfully stopped energy drinks from sending free samples to kids in his county. Spencer also testified in Wednesday's hearing.

Spencer is an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and said he treats many children.

"What I've seen is just an alarming increase in emergency room visits that just are associated with caffeine toxicity," said Spencer.

Children are more vulnerable, have different metabolisms than adults, and are more susceptible to becoming jittery and anxious, said Spencer.

A lobby group for the beverage industry said no one has been able to present evidence of a direct tie between children's health and energy drinks.

Spencer said he strongly disagrees.

"We've seen over the past five years, nationally, a ten-fold increase in the amount of emergency room visits ... directly related to caffeine, and many times these drinks," said Spencer.

The energy drinks are more dangerous than coffee because companies continually increase the concentration of caffeine, and the drinks come with additives that increase the power of caffeine, said Spencer.

Regular coffee is also often hot, and has to be consumed slowly, while energy drinks are meant to be guzzled.

A 2012 Consumer Reports analysis found about 90 milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce can of Monster Energy, and the drink comes in sizes up to 24 ounces. By comparison, an 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams.

Some critics say the government is overreaching, and argue that it is parents' jobs to regulate what their children consume.

"My concern is with a deceptive message," said Spencer. "When parents are confusing these drinks with sports drinks, and when the companies are marketing to children with free samples, then what they're doing is that they are shifting the focus away from parents, they are taking away the opportunity for parents to parent."

Red Bull responded to the criticisms in a statement to CNN, saying, in part, "Recent consumption data consistently show that caffeine intake mainly comes from coffee, soft drinks and tea – not energy drinks. This is in line with FDA estimates, despite the entry of energy drinks into the US market place more than 15 years ago."

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