Two studies led by RIA Research Scientist Kathleen E. Miller, Ph.D. investigated the link between energy drinks and public health concerns like substance abuse and risky behaviours.
"The principal target demographic for energy drinks is young adults ages 18-25, but they're nearly as common among younger teens," she said.
"This is a concern because energy drinks typically contain three times the caffeine of a soft drink, and in some cases, up to 10 times as much.
"They also include ingredients with potential interactions such as taurine and other amino acids, massive doses of vitamins, and plant and herbal extracts," she added.
In the study involving 795 Western New York male and female undergraduate students, the researchers found that frequent energy drink consumers (six or more days a month), were approximately three times as likely than less-frequent energy drink consumers or non-consumers to have smoked cigarettes, abused prescription drugs and been in a serious physical fight.
They reported drinking alcohol, having alcohol-related problems and using marijuana about twice as often as non-consumers.
They were also more likely to engage in other forms of risk-taking, including unsafe sex, not using a seatbelt, participating in an extreme sport and doing something dangerous on a dare.
Among the participants, 39 percent reported consuming at least one energy drink in the previous month. There was significantly higher consumption by men (46 percent) than by women (31 percent) and higher consumption by whites (40 percent) than by blacks (25 percent). Eighty-seven percent of the students in the study were white; 52 percent were male.
"Energy drink consumption is correlated with substance use, unsafe sexual activity and several other forms of risk-taking," said Miller.
"For parents and college officials, frequent energy drink consumption may be a red flag or warning sign for identifying a young person at higher risk for health-compromising behaviour.
"It is widely, but incorrectly, believed that the caffeine in energy drinks counteracts the effects of alcohol, so students will have the energy to party all night without getting as drunk.
"While the combination may reduce perceptions of intoxication, it does not reduce alcohol-induced impairments of reaction time or judgment," she added.
In the second study, Miller looked at energy drink consumption and "toxic jock identity."
"For many people, being an athlete is an important part of who they are. Some go a step farther, though, and come to see themselves as 'jocks.' For them, sport is wrapped up in a larger identity that also emphasizes hyper-masculinity and a willingness to take excessive risks," she said.
Unlike an athlete identity, a jock identity can be considered "toxic," according to Miller, because it's associated with a wide range of risky or problem behaviours, including problem drinking, sexual risk-taking, interpersonal violence, academic misconduct, delinquency and even suicide attempts.
The study found that undergraduates who consumed energy drinks more often were also more likely to develop a jock identity and to engage in risk-taking behaviours.
The first set of results is published online in June in the Journal of Adolescent Health, while the second appears in the March/April issue of the Journal of American College Health.