Energy drink-related emergencies have doubled nationwide in the past five years, but only one hospital in southern New Jersey is noticing the trend.
Typically busy summer nights or tournaments in town bring patients to the emergency room at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus.
“Usually, they will come in jittery or all hopped up,” said Thomas Brabson, chairman of emergency services at AtlantiCare. The most he has seen in one night is about four patients.
A majority of them are young adults, in their 20s or early 30s, and they tend to mix the energy drinks with alcohol, he said. Vodka seems to be the alcohol of choice.
“Some people will drink three to four vodka Red Bulls,” said Ashley Kelly, a bartender at Ducktown Tavern in Atlantic City.
The flawed thinking is that the stimulant in the energy drinks, caffeine, will keep the individuals awake, countering the depressant effects of alcohol, Brabson said. Instead, they come in jittery and with increased heart or respiratory rates after drinking over a long period of time.
Brabson said he has seen an increase over the past three years in these cases, but generally only when tournaments or all-night events are in town.
Officials at other South Jersey hospitals, including Southern Ocean Medical Center, Cape Regional Medical Center and South Jersey Healthcare Regional Medical Center, said they have not seen any cases involving energy drink-related emergencies.
Nationally, however, from 2007 to 2011, the government estimates the number of emergency room visits involving the neon-labeled beverages shot up from about 10,000 to more than 20,000. Most of the cases involved teens or young adults, according to the survey of the nation’s hospitals released late last week by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
More than half of the patients considered in the survey told doctors they had consumed only energy drinks. In 2011, about 42 percent of the cases involved energy drinks in combination with alcohol or drugs, such as the stimulants Adderall or Ritalin.
Al DeSimone, 22, isn’t sure whether Red Bull was behind his emergency room visit a few years ago, but he knows he didn’t feel right after consuming the energy drink. The Brigantine resident said after having two in one day, he felt jittery and knew something wasn’t right.
Friday afternoon, DeSimone was studying at Richard Stockton College with a green can of Amp sitting next to him.
“It’s a few days before school, and I’m already drinking one,” he said. “They last a long time. You can sip on these for hours.”
But he never mixes with alcohol, DeSimone said. His two older sisters, both in medical school, have warned him against the dangers of the mixed drink. His friends, however, are less cautious. When the mixed drink Four Loko first became popular in 2010, caffeine was a major ingredient, creating problems for excessive consumers. Since then it has been removed by the manufacturer.
“When it still had caffeine, some of (my friends) had three or four in one night,” DeSimone said. “But you’re not going to tell someone, ‘Hey man, you know alcohol is a depressant and energy drinks are stimulants, that’s not a good mix.’”
Late last year, the FDA asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to update the figures its substance abuse research arm compiles about emergency room visits tied to energy drinks.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s survey was based on responses it receives from about 230 hospitals each year, a representative sample of about 5 percent of emergency departments nationwide. The agency then uses those responses to estimate the number of energy drink-related emergency department visits nationwide.
The more than 20,000 cases estimated for 2011 represent a small portion of the annual 136 million emergency room visits tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FDA said it was considering the findings and pressing for more details as it undertakes a broad review of the safety of energy drinks and related ingredients this spring.
From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, people from 18 to 25 were the most common age group seeking emergency treatment for energy drink-related reactions, the report found.
Sandy Davis, 19, a student at Stockton, said she controls how many energy drinks she has in one day. Otherwise, she gets jittery.
“If I don’t sleep enough the night before,” Davis said, she grabs an energy drink rather than her usual coffee.
“I only drink one or two (energy drinks) per week. If I drank like four times a week, I’d definitely be jittery,” she said.
Energy drinks remain a small part of the carbonated soft drinks market, representing only 3.3 percent of sales volume, according to the industry tracker Beverage Digest. Even as soda consumption has flagged in recent years, energy drink sales are growing rapidly.
In 2011, sales volume for energy drinks rose by almost 17 percent, with the top three companies — Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar — each logging double-digit gains, Beverage Digest found. The drinks are often marketed at sporting events that are popular among younger people such as surfing and skateboarding.
An opposing trend exists in South Jersey.
Al Grosso, manager at Dubliner’s Irish Pub in Galloway Township, said that while the college students are the ones who order the mixed energy drinks, the number of orders has decreased in the past five or six years.
“Now if we make one or two a night it’s a lot,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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