Within minutes last week, McMillan’s phone blew up with texts from friends wanting to know where the stash was. Soon, the library’s tables and study rooms were dotted with Red Bull’s slim trademark cans.
With finals season in full swing this month, weary students are looking for anything that can help them endure late-night study sessions. Energy drink companies, whose products are already popular on college campuses, are increasingly looking to replace coffee as a student’s go-to answer for a stamina boost during finals — and then for late nights after graduation. As one Red Bull advertisement states: “Nobody ever wishes they’d slept more during college.”
But this biannual marketing blitz comes amid renewed calls from lawmakers and health activists in recent months for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate such beverages more strictly, in the aftermath of several deaths that could be connected to energy drinks.
“We wouldn’t survive nursing school without caffeine,” said Kelsey Sipe, 22, a senior at JMU who mostly drinks coffee, but often adds in energy drinks. “We tell others not to drink them, because they can increase your blood pressure, and then — kcssshhhh! — we open one.”
See the results of our energy drink taste test.
A 2008 study of undergraduates at a large public university found that 39 percent of students had consumed at least one energy drink in the past month, with considerably higher rates for males and white students. The study, funded with a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant, noted that energy drink marketing tactics are “similar to those used to sell tobacco and alcohol to youths.”
Fifteen years ago, energy drinks barely existed. Now it’s a booming industry that continues to grow. In the past year, energy drink sales in the United States totaled more than $8 billion, up more than 15 percent from a year ago, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm.
In that time nationwide, Red Bull sold more than a billion cans and Monster sold more than 1.2 billion, a total that would equate to more than seven cans per American. And that’s just for those two leading brands.
Red Bull, which hit the country in the late 1990s, is credited with creating this industry using a Thai recipe. Today there are hundreds of energy drinks on the market, ranging from 1.93-ounce 5-Hour Energy shots to 32-ounce cans of Monster. Even Starbucks has gotten into the game, producing sparkling energy drinks and canned espresso beverages.
That proliferation has intensified debate about a long-standing question: Are energy drinks safe?