Issues: Teenage addiction

October 22, 2018


Twelve. She has had 12 cups of coffee a week since 7th grade. She buys the beans from Starbucks and grinds them at home. She drinks it completely black. For Emma Roberts, junior, consuming this much caffeine is a normal routine.

“I love coffee,” Roberts said. “That’s one of the first things people know about me.”

Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant drug that increases the activity in the nervous system. Other stimulants include nicotine, cocaine and methamphetamines. According to Dr. Anna Huger, pediatrician at Purely Pediatrics, stimulants are unhealthy for teenagers. Huger says the way caffeine works is by attaching to the adenosine receptors in the brain, which are responsible for feeling drowsy and tired. The caffeine stops them, but over time the body produces more adenosine receptors that require more caffeine to achieve the same result.

Caffeine is a highly addictive drug. A study done by Medical News Today says 86 percent of teens consume caffeine regularly. According to the US National Library of Medicine, caffeine consumption in teens has increased 70 percent over the past 30 years, and Huger believes part of it is due to a cultural shift.

“It’s a social thing,” said Huger. “Teens like going to the coffee shop with their friends and getting [caffeinated beverages].”

Morgan Campbell has been a Starbucks barista for three years, and she says they see many teenagers come in before and after school, and almost always order drinks containing caffeine. On Friday afternoons from 3-4 p.m., the Kirkwood Starbucks experiences what they call “kid-rush,” when young customers flock to their store. Campbell estimates that 70 percent of these kids order caffeinated drinks.

Starbucks is not the only thing contributing to adolescent caffeine consumption. KHS has a coffee shop called Pioneer Perks that is open during the morning, selling assorted iced and hot coffees. The coffee shop is known among KHS students, with 32 (116/370) percent visiting it at least once a week. KHS also sells Mountain Dew Kickstart in the cafeteria and vending machines, an energy drink containing 92 milligrams of caffeine, as much as a regular coffee. Roberts believes most students at KHS experience caffeine cravings, and thinks the majority are addicted.

“I think I am addicted to caffeine, but I don’t think its a problem,” Roberts said. “When I don’t have coffee I don’t get headaches, and I’m never too tired because I get enough sleep.”

Teenagers are recommended no more than 100 milligrams of caffeine per day. That is equivalent to one energy drink, one soda, or one coffee drink. Any more caffeine can lead to side effects such as rapid heart rates, fatigue, anxiety and insomnia.

“Teenagers do most of their growing and developing when they are asleep,” Huger said. “If they can’t sleep, they can’t grow.”

Caffeine is deadly. Unlike nicotine and marijuana, it is possible to overdose on caffeine. In April of 2017, teenager Davis Cripe died from a caffeine overdose. He drank a McDonalds latte, a large Mountain Dew and an energy drink in a two hour time period, causing his body to shut down. He is not the first teen to die from a caffeine overdose, with the death of 19 year-old James Stone in 2007, whose death was caused by caffeine pills. Also, the energy drink 5 Hour Energy has been linked to 13 deaths and 33 hospitalizations after overconsumption.

“It is important to take caffeine breaks,” Campbell said. “Decaf tastes exactly the same, and [it can create] a placebo effect.”

Although potentially deadly, caffeine in moderation has certain health benefits. A study done by Medical News Today says that adults who regularly drink coffee reduce their risk of liver cancer by 50 percent and potentially lowers their risk of mouth and throat cancer. Caffeine also helps with focus, concentration and mood.

Too much caffeine is still a health risk for teens, but it is a risk 55 (203/370) percent of KHS students are willing to take. Whether is is due to a caffeine addiction or a cultural norm, caffeine consumption in teenagers is on the rise.

“One [cup of coffee] would not be enough,” Roberts said. “I want two. My black coffee addiction is good enough for me.”

What is being done:

The FDA has begun to crack down on caffeine powders. They are asking companies to discontinue bulk powder sales in an effort to prevent caffeine overdoses.

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Claire* picked up a Juul for the first time at the beginning of her sophomore year. She took one hit in the school bathroom for fun, and moved on. As the month went on, Claire ended up in more social situations where she had easy access to a Juul. Eventually, she found herself desperately craving the buzzing sensation nicotine gave her. By October of her sophomore year, she had her own, and by the end of the year, she was addicted.

“I realized I was addicted because every morning I would get up and hit my Juul,” Claire said. “I would hit it every other class. There was no amount of time too small for me to hit it. When I ran out of pods all I could think about was where I was going to get my next pack.”

Claire is conforming to a recent trend in high school students. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the number of high school students that are addicted to e-cigarettes has grown 900 percent in recent years. At KHS, 25 (92/365) percent of students have used an e-nicotine delivery system, and 10 (33/336) percent of students use one regularly. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its crackdown on Juul and other e-cigarette companies Sept. 12, giving them 60 days to prove they can keep their products away from minors. For Juul and other e-cigarette companies, not meeting these demands may result in having to change their advertising practices, stopping shipments to retailers selling to minors and removing flavored e-cigarette products from the market.

For customers like Claire, the loss of flavored products is a big deal. The flavors play a large role in her enjoyment of vaping. Critics argue the flavors are what turned minors onto the product in the first place. The FDA does not regulate e-cigarette products, which, according to Kelly Prunty, executive director of local drug-combating company Addiction is Real, allows these companies to advertise their products as healthier than they actually are.

“When e-cigarettes were created they were called ENDS,” Aly Stambauch, prevention educator with drug-combating organization NCADA, said. “That stands for electronic nicotine delivery system. Regardless of whether you’re using a cigarette or a Juul, it’s just another way to get nicotine into your system.”

Various organizations throughout the country have been working toward educating the public on drugs and have incorporated warnings about Juul and other e-cigarettes into their curriculum. Addiction is Real offers presentations and resources to schools and communities looking to combat the drug problem.

“Because [Juul] was advertised as safer than cigarettes, most teenagers think it’s harmless, and that’s certainly not the case,” Prunty said. “It has caught on as an epidemic, and it’s going to get a ton of teenagers addicted to nicotine.”

The FDA agrees with Prunty. It distributed more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers who illegally sold Juul and other e-cigarette products to minors, making this the largest coordinated enforcement effort in the organization’s history.

“I have noticed Juul is [intensely] advertising by giving huge discounts on their starter packs, dropping the price to $20 instead of $60,” Prunty said. “They’re making it easy and affordable for a kid to start [vaping.]”

Sixty-six (226/343) percent of KHS students have also noticed e-cigarette advertisement strategies and believe the companies are advertising to minors. The FDA has noticed as well and launched an investigation specifically into the most popular brand of e-cigarette, Juul. After the twofold blow, Juul Labs said it supported the effort to curb minors from using e-cigarettes and stated it supports bills at the state-level proposing moving the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.

Juul Labs will work proactively with FDA in response to its request,”  Kevin Burns, CEO of Juul Labs, said in a public statement. “We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people.”

Vapor has been found to contain carcinogens such as formaldehyde and nitrosamines. Although the levels of toxicity in vape have been proven to be lower than those in cigarettes, the levels of hazardous materials have been found to be “comparable or higher than those found in conventional cigarettes.”

“I thought I was fine,” Claire said. “I told myself, ‘Half of high schoolers are addicted [to vaping.] It’s fine.’ Then I thought, ‘At this rate I’m gonna need a lung replacement by 40.’ I’ve tried to quit three times, and it hasn’t worked, but this time it will.”

What’s being done: 

In addition to their investigation and new regulation enforcement, the FDA has expanded “The Real Cost,” its  first tobacco prevention campaign. The expansion targets 10.7 million at-risk teens through social media platforms and nationwide in-school ads. “The Real Cost” has earned two Effie awards and one Shorty, both are highly-coveted and given to campaigns that have outstanding market impact and online impact.

*Name changed for anonymity

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