As a grandma, Connie Owens didn't like what she'd been seeing. Owens, the manager at the Apollo Mart in Peoria, witnessed a daily parade of kids coming into the shop every morning before class at neighboring Bartonville Elementary School. The kids, mostly seventh- and eight-graders, would dash in just before first bell to grab a caffeine-laden energy drink.
As a grandma, Connie Owens didn't like what she'd been seeing.
Owens, the manager at the Apollo Mart in Peoria, witnessed a daily parade of kids coming into the shop every morning before class at neighboring Bartonville Elementary School. The kids, mostly seventh- and eight-graders, would dash in just before first bell to grab a caffeine-laden energy drink.
"You get that buzz, then BOOM -- you get all tired and cranky," Owens says. "And that's not good."
So, the business recently put up a sign: no sales of energy drinks to anyone younger than 16 years of age. No ID, no buzz.
Because of that policy, Owens has heard an earful of complaints -- not from kids, but parents.
"They're mad, because they have to come in and buy it for their children," she says, shaking their head.
Energy drinks tout all sorts of exotic ingredients, but the big jolt comes from caffeine. A typical 12-ounce cola has about 35 milligrams of caffeine, while a 12-ounce cup of coffee has 100 to 200 milligrams. But the caffeine in energy drinks varies widely. Twelve ounces of Red Bull carries 120 milligrams of caffeine, but others have much more. WiredX344 contains 258 milligrams, while Spike Shooter boasts a whopping 428 milligrams.
Mind you, kids don't sip these drinks, as adults do with hot coffee. They guzzle the cans, and the coldness means they can pound more than one quickly.
That's where trouble can occur. A growing body of evidence shows that energy drinks, especially in excess, might hurt youths and indicate other problems.
A recent piece in The New York Times rounded up the red flags. Among them: In March, four middle-school students in Florida went to the hospital with heart palpitations and sweating after downing energy drinks, while teachers in one Oregon town this month sent home letters to parents warning them that some students were coming to school "drunk" on energy drinks.
Meantime, the Journal of American College of Health published an article about "toxic jock" behavior. A study had drawn a link between high consumption of energy drinks with other risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, substance abuse and violence.
That's not to say energy drinks cause all those behaviors -- though I can see where a 16-year-old boy, already quivering with testosterone, might be prone to get in more fights if hyped up on caffeine. Regardless, according to the study, kids who pound caffeine often indulge in other extreme activities, so parents should keep their eyes open if their kids are ripping through energy drinks.
Back at the Apollo Mart, the energy-drink age limit hasn't hurts sales, as kids buy other beverages instead. Manager Owens and other employees (most of them are women) try to steer the under-16 crowd to more wholesome beverages.
"I think it's the motherly instinct with the people who work here," says Owens, who has grandkids at Bartonville Elementary. "We says, 'Why don't you get a nice bottle of juice?' "
She pauses and chuckles. Then she adds, "They usually bring back a Mountain Dew (to the counter). At least it's better than an energy drink."
Indeed, a 12-ounce Dew has just 54 milligrams of caffeine, far less than a Red Bull and its amped-up brethren. And Bartonville Elementary has noticed the change in beverages. Students aren't allowed to bring beverages on-campus, but the exterior trash cans are routinely dotted with Mountain Dew cans.
Principal Shannon Duling says he wishes the students would curtail their caffeine further.
"I really think some of the kids are pretty much hooked, because they've got to have it in the morning," he says.
He isn't sure of the correlation between grades and the roller-coaster buzz-and-crash of caffeine abuse. "I'm sure it's not helping," he says.
Assistant principal Kim Hanks says one junior-high student got sick this year -- red flush, heat flashes and anxiousness -- after downing an energy drink before classes. It wasn't his first time with the drink, but the student was on new medications. Hanks thinks the drink and the meds might have interacted badly. The student got medical attention and recovered quickly, but the staff took note of the situation.
"It was scary for him," she says.
Owens' concerns made sense to George Mullen, sales manager for Illico Inc., the Lincoln-based parent company of Apollo Mart.
He told managers to adopt the age requirement at the five other Apollo Marts: near the Lake Camelot subdivision outside Mapleton, on Airport Road outside Peoria and in McLean, Springfield and Mahomet. He said he knows of no other gas stations with an energy-drink age limit.
However, one of his managers wanted a higher age limit because of a large contingent of high school customers. At the Lake Camelot location, manager Patty Allen put the threshold at 18 years of age.
Allen started the policy recently after witnessing band competitions involving her granddaughter at Limestone High School, Twice, right after competition, kids suddenly would drop to the ground, later blaming the crashes on energy drinks consumed just before the contests.
"I've only seen it a couple of times, but it was enough to scare me," Allen says. "I wouldn't want someone to selling it to my kid without my knowing it."
As in Bartonville, parents sometimes come into Allen's business to buy energy drinks for their children. Still, Allen sees that as better than kids downing the beverages on their own.
"It makes me feel better that the parents know," she says.
Phil Luciano can be reached at email@example.com or (309) 686-3155.