Drug policy and rationality go together like hot fudge and anchovies. From marijuana to Salvia divinorum, from cocaine to "bath salts," from absinthe to Four Loko, panic precipitates and perpetuates prohibition. The process can be observed every day as activists, politicians, and yellow journalists conspire to keep the American public alarmed about the psychoactive substances other people are consuming. Sometimes their best efforts are inadequate, as illustrated by the marijuana stores that will start opening in Colorado next Wednesday. More often, horror stories about what happens when people are allowed to exercise dominion over their own minds and bodies help maintain support for the war on drugs and even to expand the list of enemies. Here are five of the year's most successful drug scares:
5. Red Bullshit
list of best drug scares last year, thanks mainly to the tireless fear mongering of New York Times reporter Barry Meier. This year the Monster Menace got a boost from a study that was widely cited as cause for alarm about energy drinks even though it did not document any harmful effects.Reporters are suckers for the warning that energy drinks, safely consumed by millions of American every year, might kill you the next time you try them. That meme made my
Using an MRI to scan the hearts of 18 subjects before and after they consumed an energy drink, researchers at the University of Bonn measured "significantly increased peak strain and peak systolic strain rates," indicating greater contractility, which is consistent with the observation that caffeine improves athletic performace. That result led to headlines such as "Energy Drinks Alter Heart Function, Study Shows" and "Warning: Study Shows Energy Drinks Can Change Your Heartbeat." The stories portrayed the study as worrisome, even though the effect it found is potentially beneficial.
A press release issued by the Radiological Society of North America encouraged the negative spin by quoting comments from a co-author of the study, radiologist Thomas Dorner, that ranged from misleading to flat-out wrong. "There are concerns about the products' potential adverse side effects on heart function, especially in adolescents and young adults, but there is little or no regulation of energy drink sales," Dorner said. "The amount of caffeine [in energy drinks] is up to three times higher than in other caffeinated beverages like coffee or cola. There are many side effects known to be associated with a high intake of caffeine, including rapid heart rate, palpitations, rise in blood pressure and, in the most severe cases, seizures or sudden death."
The implication was clear: Energy drinks pose a potentially deadly threat because they contain so much caffeine. Yet the drinks that Dorner and his colleagues gave their subjects contained 32 milligrams of caffeine per 100 milliliters, compared to 76 milligrams per 100 milliliters for Starbucks coffee. In other words, Starbucks coffee contains more than twice as much caffeine per milliliter as energy drinks, as opposed to one-third as much, as Dorner suggested. Dorner's whopper reinforced the general message that energy drinks, although objectively safer than coffee, are somehow scarier, possibly because of the shiny cans.
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