Energy Drinks

Coroner Says Everyone Should Avoid Energy Drinks, Which Kill at Random

As usual, coverage of the latest scare ignores or misrepresents the relative potency of caffeinated beverages.



Last week a South Carolina coroner blamed a teenager's sudden death on caffeine-induced arrhythmia, prompting yet another burst of alarmist warnings about the dangers posed by energy drinks. As usual, the stories either glossed over or misrepresented the amount of caffeine these products contain compared to other, less controversial beverages.

Davis Cripe, a student at Spring Hill High School in Chapin, collapsed during art class on the afternoon of April 26 and was rushed to Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later. Cripe's friends reported that he had drunk a McDonald's latte, a large Mountain Dew, and an unspecified energy drink over the course of two hours. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts attributed Cripe's death to a "caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia."

Watts, who announced his findings at a news conference that also featured Cripe's grieving father, conceded that his conclusion was debatable. "I realize this is a controversial scenario," he said. "There are are obviously people that don't think this can happen—that you can have this arrhythmia caused by caffeine."

One reason to doubt Watts' determination is that Cripe does not seem to have consumed a very large dose of caffeine. According to the website Caffeine Informer, a McDonald's latte contains 142 milligrams of caffeine, a large (20-ounce) bottle of Mountain Dew has 90, and the most popular energy drinks contain 10 milligrams per fluid ounce, or 160 milligrams in a 16-ounce can. That's a total of less than 400 milligrams, which is the daily limit recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for adults. A lethal dose of caffeine is estimated to be somewhere between 5 and 10 grams—i.e., between 5,000 and 10,000 milligrams—for an adult. Cripe was 16 and weighed about 200 pounds.

Watts acknowledged that Cripe did not consume very much caffeine. "This is not a caffeine overdose," he told Reuters. "We're not saying that it was the total amount of caffeine in the system. It was just the way that it was ingested over that short period of time, and the chugging of the energy drink at the end was what the issue was with the cardiac arrhythmia."

Millions of teenagers chug energy drinks, of course, but very few of them die afterward. So assuming Watts is right, Cripe must have been especially sensitive to caffeine. Yet Watts said Cripe seemed perfectly healthy and there was no evidence of previously undetected cardiovascular disease. The coroner suggested that energy drinks kill at random. "This is what's dangerous about this," he said. "You can have five people line up and all of them do the exact same thing with him that day, drink more, and it may not have any type of effect on them at all. It's not something that just because you drink one drink or three drinks [it] is necessarily going to have this effect."

The implication that energy drinks kill something like one out of six teenagers who consume them obviously has no basis in reality. Yet for some reason Watts wants people to think that energy drink consumers face Russian roulette odds. "Our purpose here today is to let people know, especially our young kids in school, that these drinks can be dangerous," he said. "Be very careful with how you use them, and how many you drink on a daily basis." But since Watts is saying even one can might be lethal, complete abstinence would seem to be the only prudent course.

That does appear to be Watts' message. "These drinks can be very dangerous," he said. "I'm telling my friends and family, 'Don't drink them.'" Yet he also claimed that "the purpose here today is not to slam Mountain Dew, not to slam cafe lattes, or energy drinks." It is hard to see how Watts is not slamming energy drinks when he describes them as so dangerous that no one should consume them.

Although Watts emphasized that Cripe did not die from a caffeine overdose, news outlets bent over backward to exaggerate the amount of the stimulant he ingested. Relying on Caffeine Informer's numbers, BBC News reported that "a McDonald's latte has 142mg of caffeine, a 570ml (20oz) Mountain Dew has 90mg, and a 450ml (16oz) energy drink can have as much as 240mg." That "as much as" is a bit of a giveaway. Since the type of energy drink is unknown, it seems more reasonable to cite the caffeine content of the leading brands, which generally contain 160 milligrams or less of caffeine in a 16-ounce can. But even adding another 80 milligrams brings the total to just 472, not far above the level the FDA deems safe for adults (a cutoff that seems to be excessively cautious).

To make that number seem more impressive, BBC News claims a cup of brewed coffee contains "roughly" 100 milligrams of caffeine, even though Caffeine Informer, the source it cites for the other beverages, says it's more like 163 milligrams for an eight-ounce cup. According to Caffeine Informer, brewed coffee typically contains about twice as much caffeine per ounce as those "very dangerous" energy drinks. Brewed coffee sold by some retailers is less potent but generally contains at least as much caffeine per ounce as energy drinks. Dunkin's Donuts brewed coffee, for instance, has 15 milligrams per ounce, while Peet's has about 17. At the low end, McDonald's coffee contains about nine milligrams of caffeine per ounce.

BBC News is suggesting that Cripe consumed the caffeine equivalent of more than four cups of coffee, which is true only if the coffee is unusually weak. The coffee served at other news organizations seems to be even less potent than the BBC brew. NBC News says 400 milligrams of caffeine is equivalent to "about five cups of coffee," while The Washington Post says "about four or five."

BBC News also reports that "most energy drinks contain a caffeine equivalent of three cups of coffee," relying on an estimate by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Even if we compare eight-ounce coffee cups to 16-ounce energy drink cans, that cannot possibly be true, since it implies a total caffeine content in the neighborhood of 480 milligrams. None of the energy drinks listed by Caffeine Informer contains anywhere near that amount in a container of any size.

The Post is slightly more cautious, saying "energy drinks may contain about 300 mg of caffeine." Although that is literally true, fewer than 10 of the 401 varieties listed by Caffeine Informer contain that much caffeine in a single container. Yet an earlier version of the Post story, later corrected, said that potency was typical.

"We're not trying to speak out totally against caffeine," Watts said. "We believe people need to pay attention to their caffeine intake and how they do it." But if that is the message, why did Watts single out energy drinks, which are about half as potent as coffee, urging people to eschew them entirely? And why are news organizations so keen to reinforce the same irrational distinction?

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  1. Every death requires a villain and even global warming is too much of a stretch on this one.

  2. You know what else kills at random?

    1. Drone strikes?

    2. Warty?

    3. Venereal disease?

    4. Venereal disease?

  3. I wonder if people ever die from cardiac arrhythmia sans caffeine.

    This coroner really seems to be reaching.

  4. I could really go for a damn fine cup of coffee right about now.

  5. Coroner Says Everyone Should Avoid Energy Drinks, Which Kill at Random is a blithering idiot.


  6. Although Watts emphasized that Cripe did not die from a caffeine overdose, news outlets bent over backward to exaggerate the amount of the stimulant he ingested.

    At least the news hysteria is being addressed days after the story broke.

    For some reason, media outlets are still being taken seriously.

  7. One reason to doubt Watts’ determination is that Cripe does not seem to have consumed a very large dose of caffeine.

    “Oh, very well. The artificial color in the energy drink killed him.”

  8. If the dose of caffeine is what killed him, why single out the energy drink rather than the soft drink or the coffee? Tea has a pretty good dose of caffeine – do the Brits and the Chinese and the Japanese have a high rate of cardiac arrhythmia deaths? If it wasn’t the caffeine in the energy drink – and presumably not the sugar or the water, since those are present in both the coffee and the soft drink, too – shouldn’t a science-type person suspect it’s something in the energy drink that’s not present in the coffee or the soft drink and be investigating that possibility? If a science-type person isn’t willing to do science-type work leading to science-type conclusions, my science-type analysis leads me to suspect this ain’t science.

    1. Tea has about half the caffeine of coffee and the green tea that Japanese and Chinese favor is not typically strong. Still, why aren’t the Cubans dropping dead from all those shot of coffee on every street corner?

  9. this is your doctor’s brain on government pay.

  10. This story was followed with great interest in my home. My wife loves this sort of morning news show scare coverage.

    I was immediately skeptical…. partly because of the way it was covered, and partly because of the quick assumption of cause of death with such a short list of caffeine. When they said “killed by energy drinks” I was expecting to hear “chugged a case of red bull”, not had a cup off coffee, a soda and an energy drink. Then they said “otherwise perfectly healthy”. Eh…. how’d ya come up with that?

    Having dealt with lots of doctors over the years, I’ve grown to understand that they very often pattern-match a brief list of facts to come up with a most-likely scenario. “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebra”. Something makes me think that coroners are the same way. They are basically making an educated guess in many cases.

    Caffeine sounds like a good enough guess when you have an arrhythmia, but it really seems unscientific to pin it as a definitive cause of death, much less make a blanket statement that it is proof that all energy drinks are inherently dangerous. We’ve been conducting the world’s largest clinical trial for more than a century with all of the coffee we consume. If 500mg of caffeine was really akin to Russian Roulette at any significant level, we’d know it by now.

  11. The logical solution is to replace crappy stimulants like caffeine with modern, safe stimulants like modafinil. I’m not sure if the “energy drink taste” would be able to cover up the flavor, but it’s a price others should be willing to pay.

    1. Well, if modafinil tastes roughly like ass, they’ve already got it covered.

      1. I had a Red Bull once and got real jealous of those guys for figuring out how to basically print money by convincing so many people to drink something that tastes so horrible.

  12. If the kid had drunk the coffee last, would this guy be blaming the coffee?

    1. Or, I could have read to the end of the article.

      But yeah, it seems like they’re treating “energy drinks” the same way as “sugary soft drinks” despite the existence of posher products with the exact same properties.

      1. ” ‘posher’ products”

        That’s limey talk.

        1. Sod off, guv’nah.

  13. The coroner suggested that energy drinks kill at random.

    One tried to kill my kids while they were playing baseball this weekend. I drank it’s innards and let the kids stomp on it’s corpse before using it as a base.

    The week before that, another one tried to kill my wife in the shower. I tore it’s head off, poured it into tumbler with some Vodka, Mrs. Casual toasted and otherwise celebrated having survived the ordeal.

    If this keeps up, in about 60 yrs. or so, these energy drinks will eventually take us down.

  14. I once drank three cans of Mt Dew over a two hour period. I stopped because I could feel my hair vibrating. You people can keep your caffeine for all I care.

    1. “You people can keep your caffeine for all I care.”

      That’s mighty libertarian of you.

      1. Don’t call me a libertarian.

  15. FFS it was the kids vaccines’ and BMI. A 200 lb. 16 year-old? How does the kid consume all that shit on a school day. He was clearly thumbing his nose at Moochelle Oblamer’s school lunch program. The other kids better see where this type of resistance will lead them.

    Those caffeine drinks are like loaded guns and yet he was able to brandish and consume them in public. Where was the school resource officer. If that kid had been in cuffs he would not have been able to consume his poison. He was clearly a bad influence and danger to the other children with his reckless modeling.

    1. Help us Obi-wan Bloomberg. You’re our only hope.

  16. “…and an unspecified energy drink .” WTF!? No name for the smoking gun? Seems like there is some Big Energy Drink protectionism going on around here. McDonalds and Mountain Dew got thrown under the bus but not Big Energy. I need a Four Loko after reading this.

  17. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts attributed Cripe’s death to a “caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia.”

    OK. Have I got this right? The coroner, on an official state document defining the cause of death, gets to use the word “probable”?

    First they came for the druggies, but I did not protest, because I was not a druggie
    Then they came for the smokers, but I did not protest, because I was not a smoker. (I quit years ago)
    Then they came for the conservatives, but I did not protest, because conservatives are just democrats that want more defense spending.
    Now they are coming for the caffeine drinkers, and I am going to the barricades!!!

  18. e’s friends reported that he had drunk a McDonald’s latte, a large Mountain Dew, and an unspecified energy drink over the course of two hours.

    Idiots. It was the Mountain Dew.

  19. The only thing that will stop a bad guy with an energy drink is a good guy with an energy drink.

  20. I’m a caffeine junkie. We’re talking up to 4 per day of the 240mg varieties.

    First, I live about 30 minutes away from where this kid lived. The 240mg Rockstar Punched flavor is by far the most popular in this area. Sure, he could have had a Monster or something, but I’d bet on the Rockstar as there’s been a sale going on where they’re a dollar, and they’re already insanely popular.

    Second, the catch with caffeine has less to do with how much you drink than it does with how quickly you consume it. In other words, you could drink an entire gram in a 12 hour period and be totally fine. Do it in an hour, and it could kill you, even for a regular consumer.

    Third, like with most drugs, there’s tolerance. I’ve consumed 400mg+ per day for over a decade, and have regularly consumed 600mg+ per day within the past few years. What that kid consumed is my regular breakfast of two Rockstars. However, at his age, he likely has little to no tolerance. When I started drinking those things, even a 160mg could get me jittery (a sign of overdose). Now, I could knock back a 240mg in a 10 minute break and not feel a thing unless my stomach is empty.

    So, it doesn’t really shock me that this kid died. Caffeine is one of the safest drugs out there, but you still have to be responsible when consuming it. Assuming this kid has a low tolerance, then slamming 400mg+ in a couple of hours is just stupid.

    1. When I was in my early 20s, I’d take two Vivarin tablets, which amount to 400mg of caffeine, if I had an early morning and partied the night before. This was consumed in a matter of seconds, not hours. And I had a lot of early mornigs and late partyings.

      1. That’s due to tablets being absorbed much more slowly than caffeine-laced sugar water, which is about as quick as you can get shy of simply shooting it up or inhaling it.

    2. Is it? When the lethal dose is 5,000 mg?

      1. You confuse an overdose with a lethal dose. An overdose simply means you start experiencing adverse effects, and death could result from one of those effects (as it did in the case of this kid). A lethal dose means a substance has a 50/50 chance of killing you at that dosage.

        In caffeine, you can start to experience an overdose around 400mg, but a lethal dose would be 5 grams.

    3. Is it? When the lethal dose is 5,000 mg?

  21. I wonder how much this guy was paid. He earned it. He should be on TV with Dr. Oz.

    I got a phone call from my mother when this story broke, worried about my Rockstar intake.

    This kid had a heart problem, most likely. Caffeine is great stuff.

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