Study Hard

At first, I thought the call was about Cocaine.

After all, it was the heady year of 2006, before the housing bubble burst, the stock market crashed and the Great Recession set in. Times were good!

And besides, it was a Congressional staffer on the line, asking about energy drinks.

But no, even though the call coincided with the first recorded uproar about energy drink obnoxiousness (and yes, naming it Cocaine qualified), this young Washington politico hadn’t rung me up to find out about energy drinks to put together a briefing on outrageous marketing practices.

He was looking for a recommendation. He wanted to find a good-tasting energy drink for him and the rest of the staffers to power them through budget season.

I thought of that call recently, as I watched the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation hearing on energy drink marketing to youth.

I thought of it as I paged through the myriad studies that have been released lately on energy drinks, soda, caffeine, youth marketing, emergency rooms, and poison control.

I thought of it as I watched Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) turn the ratchet on energy drink company representatives, their arguments made compelling, most likely, by the work product of young staffers fueled by the same products that were the subject of the hearing.

I thought of it as I heard, once again, the disconnect in language between pediatricians, who say energy drinks are bad for kids, and energy drink companies, who say energy drinks aren’t made for kids, and saw, once again, that continuum of social responsibility that spans horse sense and scientific inquiry, personal choice and parental warning, regulatory overreach and good government.

The most important point to be made during the energy drink hearings was made early on, and it’s one that everyone seemed to agree on: it’s just not that cool to try to hook the youth of America on energy drinks before they’re old enough to drive. But observers could tell by the energy drink executives’ cowed nodding that when it comes to marketing practices, things like online photos of six-year-olds with Rockstar skateboards will soon become things of the past.

In one sense, having trumped the much more established and nefarious tobacco companies back in the day, the Senators’ experience allowed them to instruct the more callow energy drink brands as to the limits of common sense. Clean your room, they said, before we use you to wipe the floor.

Still, I thought of the call again this morning, when I read three more studies, none of which were mentioned during the committee hearing. And I wondered if the histrionics were worth it.

Here was one study: researchers asked the parents of 3,000 5-year-olds whether those children a) drank four or more sodas a day and b) if those children who drank four or more sodas per day – about 4 percent of them – were more likely than the others to behave aggressively, i.e. to break stuff or attack other people.

Here was another: young mothers are, according to Nielsen, a surprisingly heavy group of users of energy drinks, often consuming one shortly before their kids return from school, to get through the afternoon.

Here was the last: over a year-long period, Johns Hopkins researchers interviewed 105 patients in a Baltimore emergency room and determined that Budweiser, Steel Reserve, Colt .45, Bud Ice and Bud Light were the most popular beverages involved in emergency room visits. Analysis of the research revealed that, while the researchers had mostly begun their shifts at about 10 p.m. on Friday night, their interview subjects didn’t sober up enough for a quality review until about 4 a.m.

My conclusion? We need to stay awake, and not just because we’re being inundated with poorly-written scientific studies. Just look at the number of Faygo-crazed children we’ve got to raise. Listen to the news: we’re about to hit the debt ceiling all over again, we’re about to go bomb Syria, we’ve killed the Voting Rights Act. There are shortages of general practitioners and ER doctors.

There are a lot of things to study, and we’re going to need a lot of Rockstar, Starbucks, and whatever else you’ve got to get through them all. Because here’s the absolute last study we need: one about doctors’ visits by droopy-eyed Congressional staffers, complaining about a lack of energy and focus, looking for a pick-me-up, any kind of pick-me-up at all, because there’s too much work to do.