Lanna Hamann was an apparently healthy 16-year-old. In 2014, she went to Rocky Point, Mexico, with her friends. There, she tragically died of a heart attack. After a day of drinking energy drinks at the beach, Lanna complained that she was not feeling well. Shortly after, she went into cardiac arrest, and died. According to her friends, Lanna was not drinking any water. In a well-organized social media campaign launched after Lanna’s death, her friends and family blamed Red Bull as a contributing factor to her heart attack.

Every now and then, this and similar news stories will surface, most notably as click-bait (in Norwegian) in your Facebook feed. As a warning to young irresponsible people with no concept of actions and their possible consequences, they serve a purpose. But every time one of these “guy drinks 10 cans of caffeine and mysteriously croaks”-stories is published, the someone-think-of-the-children-mob appears with their torches and pitchforks.

Why isn’t there any click-bait articles being written about the deaths from alcohol consumption? According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths each year in the United States from 2006 to 2010. If there’s something in your grocery store you should start a crusade against, then perhaps alcohol is a better choice than energy drinks?

A glass of Red Bull with the can standing to the right.
A killer in a can. Photo by Nattu. License: CC BY 2.0.

Tolerance & Health

One might argue that energy drinks is a better target because it’s sold to minors, whereas alcohol only can be purchased legally by adults. But age isn’t really the issue here. That excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years1 is excellent proof that growing up doesn’t automatically turn you into a responsible person. The issue is that as long as there are something available that people can die from, someone will go ahead die from it. Like water.

Humans can tolerate different amounts of various substances. I once worked with a guy who got dizzy if he smelled the cap from a freshly opened bottle of beer. I also went to college with a guy who could drink a case of beer, and still recite the alphabet backwards while dancing the Funky Chicken. The latter is called alcoholism, by the way. The point is that people are different. Some people can handle a lot of caffeine, some people can’t. Should we cancel the party for all of us just because one guy doesn’t like the music? Perhaps That Guy is better off at another party, where they play his kind of music.

Then you have those who has some kind of pre-existing health issue that might be triggered by caffeine consumption. Some people are born with heart failures that go unnoticed until something goes horribly wrong. Too much caffeine can cause an irregular or fast heartbeat, which in turn might trigger a pre-existing heart condition. Teenagers don’t normally drink a lot of coffee, and the energy drinks they consume end up getting the blame. If they’d been drinking coffee instead, that might have caused the same condition.

Consume Responsibly

So as with much of what we eat, drink, and otherwise consume, this is a question of responsible usage. Most of what we stuff into our mouths isn’t dangerous when consumed in reasonable quantities. But if you start binging, you’ve got a problem. So, in my humble opinion, you can’t really blame the product per se2.

Am I biased? Yes, most certainly. I enjoy the occasional energy drink. Whenever I come across one I haven’t tried, I buy it. I’ve even gone total douche, and written a bunch of energy drink reviews. Actually, I’m sipping from a can of The Doctor from Monster Energy as I’m writing this.

And my heart rate is 52 beats per minute, so there’s no need to call an actual doctor yet.

  1. This is also data from the CDC report. ↩︎

  2. Marketing, on the other hand, you can blame all you want. ↩︎