Davis Cripe, a student at Spring Hill High School in Chapin, South Carolina, died last year after drinking a Mountain Dew, a McDonald's latte, and an unspecified energy drink. Although the total amount of caffeine he consumed could not possibly have been anywhere near a lethal dose, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts attributed Cripe's death to a "caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia." Now a state legislator, Rep. Leon Howard (D-Richland), wants to ban the sale of Mountain Dew to minors.
Just kidding. Howard wants to ban the sale of coffee to minors.
Still kidding. His actual target, as you might expect based on recent hysteria about the deadly dangers supposedly lurking inside cans of Red Bull, Monster Energy, and Rockstar, is energy drinks. But the other two options would have been equally logical. Which is to say, not logical at all.
If Cripe's death really was caused by ingestion of caffeine in beverages, his reaction was highly idiosyncratic. The State, Columbia's daily newspaper, reports that Cripe's parents "have pledged to see South Carolina ban the sale of the caffeine cocktails that killed their 16-year-old son." But it also notes that Cripe is the only teenager in the United States whose death has been attributed to an energy drink during the last five years.
Data from the Simmons Teen Survey indicate that 31 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds consume energy drinks "regularly." That's about 8 million teenagers in the U.S., consuming at least 400 million cans a year (assuming one can a week) and at least 2 billion over the course of five years. Even assuming Watts' explanation of Cripe's death was correct, the chance that any given can of energy drink will kill a teenager is something like 1 in 2 billion. Anyone who thinks odds like those justify legislation has lost all sense of proportion.
Howard's bill would make it a misdemeanor to "sell, furnish, give, or distribute an energy drink to a minor under the age of eighteen years." Each violation would carry a minimum fine of $50, so if you buy energy drinks and let your 17-year-old son have one a day, you would be on the hook for at least $350 a week, $18,200 a year. If you instead let your kid drink Mountain Dew or coffee, however, you would be in the clear.
How little sense that distinction makes becomes clear when you compare the caffeine content of coffee and energy drinks. Although both vary pretty widely, coffee generally has more caffeine per fluid ounce. The State, as is typical of news outlets trying to alarm people about energy drinks, obscures that point by comparing unusually weak coffee to unusually strong energy drinks.
The newspaper notes that the Food and Drug Administration "recommends adults consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day," which it equates with "four to five cups of coffee." The implication is that an average cup of coffee contains about 80 milligrams of caffeine. Yet the vast majority of the coffee drinks listed at Caffeine Informer contain more than that amount. That includes the McDonald's latte that Cripe drank, which according to the website contains 142 milligrams of caffeine. A short (eight-ounce) Starbucks coffee has 165 milligrams, twice what The State implies is typical.
The State adds that "energy drinks can contain far more caffeine [than coffee does]—up to 300 milligrams." That's literally true but highly misleading. Just eight of the 413 energy drinks listed by Caffeine Informer—i.e., 2 percent—contain 300 or more milligrams of caffeine. By comparison, 12 of the 143 coffee drinks—8 percent—hit that cutoff, include a grande (16-ounce) Starbucks coffee, which weighs in at 330 milligrams of caffeine, about 20 per fluid ounce. The standard versions of the most popular energy drinks have 10 milligrams of caffeine per ounce, or 80 for an eight-ounce can and 160 for a 16-ounce can.
What all this has to do with Cripe's death is not at all clear. Cripe was 16 and weighed about 200 pounds. 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. That's at least 30 short cups of Starbucks coffee and more than 60 of the weak stuff they seem to be drinking at The State.
"This is not a caffeine overdose," Watts told Reuters after attributing Cripe's death to caffeine. "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." But if Cripe had chugged a McDonald's iced coffee (200 milligrams of caffeine) instead of an energy drink (80 or 160 milligrams, probably), would anyone be demanding a ban?