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Energy by the gulp Caffeine-loaded beverages used by young people are a $3 billion industry

Don't be surprised to see Cocaine sold in stores.

Not the illegal drug, but Cocaine Energy Drink, which not only carries a provocative name but twice the caffeine of a stiff cup of coffee. It's the latest in the war of energy drinks -- the caffeine-loaded, high-sugar beverages popular with a college crowd that gulped down gallons of Red Bull, No Fear, Amp, Monster and other brands while studying for final exams the past couple of weeks.

Think of it as coffee for the Millennial Generation. "They need something to keep them awake," said Brian Triantafillou, an Amherst resident in his senior year at Geneseo State College. "Looking around the library, I saw a ridiculous amount of energy drinks."

What started as a niche market of thrill seekers and late-night partygoers has grown a whopping 700 percent over the past five years and become a $3.5 billion industry, said Ian Alam, a marketing professor at Geneseo.

"The popularity of energy drinks is going up very fast," Alam said, "This whole train started with Mountain Dew. They came up with a very successful high-caffeine drink, and many companies have since improved on their model."

But as the energy-drink business has grown, so has concern that it's creating an unhealthy dependency on caffeine among teenage and young adult consumers.

Northwestern University researchers recently cautioned about an emerging problem. Their study looked at three years of cases reported to the Illinois Poison Center and found more than 250 were from overuse of caffeine supplements, like energy drinks and stimulant pills. The average age of those affected was 21.

"An occasional boost, a morning cup of coffee or two, isn't horrible. It's just when it gets excessive," said Mary Jo Parker, a nutrition therapist in Williamsville. "And these products are marketed to groups that can abuse them."

Those in their teens and 20s are on the go, and often use the drinks as a boost to stay up late, or as a morning energizer to wake up for class or work. "Being in the college scene, you'll primarily encounter energy drinks at the bar scene, with the Red Bull and vodka, and 'Jager bombs' [Jagermeister and Red Bull] being commonly ordered drinks," said Triantafillou, 21.

Health experts sound warnings. A recent Brazilian study suggests mixing the drinks with alcohol reduces a person's ability to judge how impaired they really are.

Meanwhile, as the market competition increases, so does the caffeine content of the drinks and the potential for health effects, such as nausea, vomiting, palpitations, anxiety, irritability and interrupted sleep. "There's a lot of caffeine in a small amount," said Dr. Theresa Stephan Hains, director of the Weigel Health Center at Buffalo State College, "and in our experience, people are drinking way too many of them, way too fast."

Some have recommended the Food and Drug Administration require the amount of caffeine be clearly labeled on single-serving beverage cans. For now, there's no oversight and little research on how large doses of caffeine impact young people over time.

Cocaine Energy Drink, which debuted in September, comes in a red, 8 ounce can and, while it does not really contain cocaine, it has a kick -- more than three times the caffeine of the market leader, Red Bull, said Alam, who studies new products.

The drink has roughly five times the caffeine of some leading sodas, even though it's in a can two-thirds the size.

The drink -- made by Redux Beverages, based in Valley Center, Calif. -- is now being sold in the New York City and Los Angeles areas, as well as parts of Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Connecticut. It hasn't hit the Western New York area yet.

But it's the brand name that's really raising eyebrows.

While it may be a clever scheme to stand out among the market clutter, Alam takes aim at the ethical issue of peddling a product called Cocaine to teens and young adults.

He's not the only one.

Operators of 7-11 Inc. told franchises not to stock the beverage after complaints from parents.

And the makers of the drink may have trouble getting a federal trademark on their product after five law students from Cleveland State University's College of Law filed an opposition on the grounds the name is "immoral and scandalous."

"What the product is telling you is it's a legal alternative to an illegal substance," said Alam. "It is obvious they need to change the name of the drink."

Not everyone shares Alam's opinion. The product tested favorably among his focus group. In fact, Travis Sackett, a Geneseo senior from Batavia and one of Alam's students, is more disappointed with the Cherry, or fireball, taste than the brand name.

"There's definitely a buzz you get off it," said Sackett, 22. "I'd definitely recommend it for college students pulling an all-nighter." But, he said, "I don't think I'd recommend more than one at a time. It's so powerful."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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