Popularity of coffee houses among teen-agers and consumption of high-octane soft drinks by children of all ages has led health experts to urge consumers to avoid caffeine overdose.
Teen-ager Matt Smith sipped his first cup of coffee, drawn from a gleaming pot of mountain-grown Folgers, while still in kindergarten.
``We would have family gatherings, and there would be coffee,'' the former Baldwin resident said. ``I was always told it would stunt my growth.''
Fast forward more than a decade to present-day Lawrence, where Smith lives in a city brimming with trendy coffee shops that substitute for bars as a place for the underage crowd to socialize. No ID checks at the cafe.
``When I came to Lawrence, I wanted to meet people,'' said Smith, 17, lounging outside The Java Break with a group of young coffee connoisseurs. ``I came here to hang out and, well, you can't help but get hooked on the coffee.''
Millions of Americans are coming of age at a time when demand for caffeine -- one of the world's most widely used stimulants -- is at a fever pitch. Desire for coffee and tea, consumed for centuries as a natural source of caffeine, has inspired manufacturers of caffeine-injected soft drinks to orchestrate well-financed campaigns for consumer loyalty.
KU student Annie McKay, studying Russian on a sunny afternoon, ought to own stock in Mountain Dew. When it's hot, she drinks a lot.
``It could be eight a day,'' said McKay, who isn't a coffee fan.
The National Soft Drink Assn. ranks Mountain Dew third among sodas for highest caffeine content. Each 12-ounce serving holds 54 milligrams of caffeine, a notch below the 58.8 milligrams in a can of sugar-free Mr. Pibb.
These pale in comparison to the No. 1 drink on the list: Jolt, which packs 71.2 milligrams of caffeine, a mere 0.8 milligrams below the federal legal limit.
U.S. children knock back an estimated 64 gallons of soda annually. They support an industry that generates $12 billion a year in sales.
``Americans love cold, packaged sweet drinks,'' said Tom Pirko of Bevmark, an industry consultant.
Julie Francis, health educator at KU's Watkins Health Center, said people had shown up at the campus clinic with trembling hands, shortness of breath and irregular heart beat.
``They don't know the cause,'' she said. ``Of course, they just downed a 52-ounce Big Gulp.''
In part, Francis said, many people victimized by caffeine overdose just don't appreciate implications of ingesting stimulants. They don't have a good sense of the quantity of caffeine in their favorite foods and drinks, she said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health-advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., is pressing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require caffeine content to be declared on all food and beverage labels. Packages typically list caffeine as an ingredient, but don't specify quantity.
For example, a cup of Dannon Coffee Yogurt has as much caffeine as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, while a Dannon Light Cappuccino Yogurt has no caffeine. A cup of Starbuck's Coffee Ice Cream has as much caffeine as half a cup of instant coffee, while some other brands are virtually caffeine free.
"Americans should be mindful about their caffeine consumption,'' said Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a supporter of precise labeling.
``Drinking the caffeine equivalent of several cups of coffee a day can lead to insomnia, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. Ceasing the consumption of caffeine often leads to withdrawal symptoms, such as headache and fatigue.''
Griffiths categorized caffeine as a mildly addictive drug and suggested ``parents might wish to limit their children's consumption of it."
C.J. Matta, 19, of Lawrence, could have benefited from that warning. A self-described caffeine junkie for about five years, Matta cut back after a visit to see a physician. She was told extreme caffeine consumption was aggravating a condition known as costochondritis. It's a swelling of a rib over the junction of bone and cartilage.
``I was in a lot of pain,'' she said. ``The first thing the doctor asked me was, `How much caffeine do you get?' I told him I could go through (with friends) seven or eight pots a night. He said I had to cut way back.''
Matta slashed her intake by three-fourths. There were consequences.
``I had excruciating headaches. It felt like someone was turning a vice on my head,'' she said, sipping a chocolate flavored coffee drink known as a Double Sex Bomb.
Grounds for concern
Small doses of caffeine generally aid short-term concentration and task completion, which explains the allure of the coffee bean, tea leaf and soda beverage. But large doses of caffeine, especially for kids with bodies half as large as an adult, isn't healthy.
Judith Rapoport, a child researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, found in her study that one-third of the 8- to 13-year-old people who consumed high doses of caffeine were hyperactive enough to meet criteria for attention deficit disorder.
Substituting caffeinated soda for water, milk and juice can also harm growing bodies.
USDA data show teen-agers drank more soft drinks than milk in 1994. They also show children under 5 years of age consumed 16 percent less milk and 23 percent more soft drinks than in the late 1970s.
"Many children consume large quantities of empty-calorie soft drinks and other caffeinated beverages in place of fruit juice, which may help reduce the risk of cancer, or 1-percent or skim milk, which may help reduce the risk of osteoporosis," said Patricia Lieberman, senior fellow at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In the java fold
Smith longed for his favorite concoction, a chocolate- and strawberry-flavored espresso, as the after-school rush began at Java Break. The tasty mixture has more than 100 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of more than two Diet Cokes.
He considered the close relationship he and his friends have with caffeine.
They get it daily in liquid form as well as in ice cream, yogurt, chocolate and, of course, over-the-counter drugs. NoDoz, popular with students trying to stay awake while studying for exams, possesses 200 milligrams per tablet.
``We all know caffeine isn't just for breakfast anymore.''
Smith said people in his circle wouldn't be too alarmed by the 40 or so studies outlining potential health problems associated with excessive caffeine consumption. No one fears stunted growth, either.
``I don't think I'm that addicted,'' he said.
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is email@example.com.