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Aldermen hear conflicting testimony over energy drinks

Howard Axe M.D. is an internal medicine doctor Medical Care Group ArlingtHeights. He is also president Chicago Medical Society believes

Howard Axe, M.D. is an internal medicine doctor at the Medical Care Group in Arlington Heights. He is also president of Chicago Medical Society, and believes coming changes in health care law will reduce patient access to medical care by forcing more doctors to sell practices. Photographed on Friday, March 1, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 7, 2013 1:25PM

A City Council committee on Tuesday got a jolt of information about the health risks of high-caffeine energy drinks but took no vote on a powerful alderman’s proposal to ban them.

The mother of a Maryland teen who died after downing two 24-ounce Monster energy drinks over a 24-hour period was supposed to be the star of the show, but Wendy Crossland’s dramatic testimony was canceled because of the snowstorm.

That deprived the Health Committee of a firsthand account of a health risk that so far has no Chicago examples — and forced Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) to carry the ball for his ban.

Burke cited a recent federal report that showed the number of annual hospital visits tied to highly caffeinated energy drinks doubled between 2007 and 2011 — to 21,000.

“A 24-ounce can of Monster Energy is believed to contain approximately 480 milligrams of known caffeine, which is the equivalent of almost 14 12-ounce cans of Coca-Cola. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents consume no more than 100 milligrams of caffeine each day,” Burke said.

“If nothing else, hearings like this are going to make parents aware of these products. But I wonder how many parents have read what the can says: ‘We went down to the lab and cooked up a double-shot of our killer energy brew.’ This lady in Maryland believes that’s exactly what this product is to her 14-year-old child. That’s what they say on the can that they’re selling here in Chicago — that it’s a ‘killer energy brew.’ ”

Dr. Howard Axe, president of the Chicago Medical Society, agreed that “super-caffeinated energy drinks” such as Red Bull, Monster Energy and Rock Star, “pose serious health risks, including possible fatalities” to adults and children, particularly those with pre-existing conditions.

“A child or adolescent who has a pre-existing heart condition and drinks just two of these energy drinks runs a very real risk of having a fatal heart attack,” Axe said, noting that energy drinks contain “nearly 3.5 times the caffeine-per-ounce” of soda.

Arguing the American and Illinois Beverage Association’s case against Burke’s ban was Washington attorney Stuart Pape.

One day after Monster denied that the energy drink caused the death of Crossland’s daughter, Pape argued that only 20,000 of the 136 million annual emergency room visits were related to energy drinks and that half of those were also associated with other substances.

“So, you’re talking 10,000 or maybe 20,000 to be charitable. Now, I’m not a math major, but 20,000 is a very tiny percentage of 136 million,” Pape said.

He added, “An energy drink will typically have 10 to maybe 15 milligrams [of caffeine] per fluid ounce. That would be 160 to 240 milligrams in a 16-ounce serving and a cup of Coffee House coffee would have 300 to 330 — so nearly twice as much.”

Pape’s claim prompted Burke to swing into his Perry Mason routine and ask why children and pregnant women are advised on the can to avoid energy drinks.

“It’s not because the ingredient isn’t safe. It’s probably because the young people don’t need the energy or stimulation that comes with caffeine … [and] the FDA’s advice is that pregnant women should limit their consumption of caffeine,” Pape said.

The three-hour hearing ended without a vote — either on Burke’s blanket ban or Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas’ proposal to prohibit minors from purchasing energy drinks, but served to get the industry’s attention and educate parents.

On Tuesday, Cardenas reiterated that his ultimate goal is better labeling.

“It would not be appropriate to ban anything,” the chairman said.

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