Energy Drinks and Caffeine: A Gateway Drug

Should caffeine be considered a gateway drug?

Some think so, especially as the reports of caffeine overdose in teenagers increase.

I remember the days when the D.A.R.E officer would come into my school and warn about the dangers of smoking and drinking as they were the gateway drugs to hard illegal ones.

It now appears that certain officials are pushing to add energy drinks and caffeine to the list of gateway drugs.

Studies Links Energy Drink to Substance Abuse

A recent study conducted by the American Society of Addiction Medicine found a strong correlation between teen energy drink use and their use of illegal drugs.

Their finding came from analyzing the results of self-reporting surveys from a nationally representative sample of teens in grades 8, 10, 12.  Here’s a summary of their findings.

  1. 30% of participating teens reported using energy drinks and energy shots.
  2. 40% reported daily use of these beverages.
  3. Past 30-day drug use was much higher among the teens that consume energy drinks and shots than those that do not.

The researchers concluded that energy drink use heightens a teen’s risk for substance abuse. They admitted that this study didn’t prove that energy drinks cause substance abuse, but only that there was a strong correlation between the two.

Another study published in the journal, Neuropsychopharmacology sought to see if caffeine consumed during adolescence permanently altered the brain’s functioning in adulthood.

The researchers from The University of Colorado concluded the following:

“Caffeine consumption during adolescence produced changes in the NAc that are evident in adulthood and may contribute to increases in cocaine-mediated behaviors.”

Basically, they found that caffeine consumed during brain development increased the level of enjoyment experienced by those adults when using cocaine as adults. The study can be found here.

Another study conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Health and published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence also found a correlation between energy drink consumption and drug abuse.

In this study, college students were enrolled in the study and followed for 5 years. Researchers found that those that reported regular energy drink use were more likely to use cocaine, prescription stimulants, and abuse alcohol at age 25.

Caffeine as a Gateway Drug Proposal

In addition to the above study, the LA Times reported that Roland Griffiths from John Hopkins University has recently published a paper outlining the dangers of energy drink consumption. He also had 97 addiction experts sign the paper and then he sent it to the US Food and Drug Administration calling for federal regulation of energy drinks.

He believes that energy drinks should be considered gateway drugs and that kids who consume them will be more likely to use illegal drugs in the future.

He refers to a study performed that claimed college students who drank energy drinks were more likely to engage in risky behavior.

More Evidence Needed

I think more research is needed before this kind of assumption can be made about energy drinks and their relationship to substance abuse.

The study from the ASAM sampled 22,000 students and the second study only looked at 795 college students, which is a start, but not large enough to draw solid conclusions about the dangers of energy drinks and their alleged gateway drug status.

Also, I think people who are inclined to have an addictive inclination tend to go overboard on everything like caffeine, alcohol, and eventually perhaps harder drugs; but energy drinks aren’t likely the cause of this behavior.

It may seem like teens abusing energy drinks is the lesser of two evils, but too much consumption of energy drinks can have adverse consequences on teenagers’ health.

Whether energy drink consumption is the gateway to harder drugs in the future is possible, but more research will be needed fully understand the existing correlation.

However, because of energy drink health concerns, several municipalities around the USA and around the world are proposing that energy drink sales be restricted by age similar to the way alcohol is governed.

What do you think? Do you think energy drinks should be considered a gateway drug and restricted by the government?

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Last Modified: January 5, 2018


  • Terry-McElrath, Y. M., Oʼmalley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2013). Energy drinks, soft drinks, and substance use among United States secondary school students. Journal of addiction medicine, 8(1), 6-13.
  • O'Neill, C. E., Levis, S. C., Schreiner, D. C., Amat, J., Maier, S. F., & Bachtell, R. K. (2014). Effects of Adolescent Caffeine Consumption on Cocaine Sensitivity. Neuropsychopharmacology.
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