Was The Death Of A 14 Year Old Girl Preventable? (Monster Energy Edition)

I want to write a post about yesterday’s Monster Energy ($MNST: long – bought on the dip) news, and yet I don’t: I worry that the topic will morph into an Untouchable that people can’t discuss rationally.   The story is tragic – Anais Fournier,  a 14 year old girl with a heart condition and connective tissue disorder, died* after drinking Monster Energy drinks on two consecutive days in December of 2011.   This post has absolutely NOTHING to do with the fact that I bought some stock today – I may sell that stock very shortly – rather, I find it to be a pretty interesting moral/ethical/libertarian talking point.   So let’s start with the facts:

1) Someone will say (as several already have): “She probably did something stupid like chug a dozen of these energy drinks – you can die if you drink enough water, so what do you want us to do? Put warning labels on water too?

Ok – but if you read the actual complaint, she didn’t drink a dozen Monsters – she had two, on back to back days.  Now, each can is probably 2 (or sometimes even 3) “serving sizes,” but still – I don’t think it’s reasonable to accuse this girl of “binging” on these energy drinks.  Any analogies to “if you drink enough of anything it will kill you” are null and void:  she only had one can, twice, on two separate days.   What I’m trying to say here is that consumers should be able to assume that “normal” consumption of a product will not kill them.    I mention this because although I’m generally a free marketer who could be classified in some philosophical sense as a “Libertarian,” I don’t believe that we should just allow the market to solve all problems:  I don’t think that we should get rid of the FDA, replace it with YELP ($YELP: no positions) or Amazon Reviews ($AMZN: no positions), and assume that consumers will just educate themselves efficiently and that hazardous/harmful products will get bad reviews,  and let the chips fall as they may {“Hey – you should have read the reviews!  They listed all the risks!”}.    Anyway, moving on…

2) Anais Fournier had a condition known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.  She also had an underlying heart condition.  Yet according to the New York Times, emphasis mine:

“A lawyer for her family, Kevin Goldberg, said that the 14-year-old had been aware she had an underlying heart condition but added that her doctors had not told her to restrict her physical activities or her caffeine use. “

This is a huge point for me, because the family alleges in the complaint:

and then:

 

While my intention here is positively not to make light of this poor girl’s death, I have to respond: BULLSHIT.  If the girl didn’t even know that she should restrict her caffeine use, then how on Earth are we supposed to conclude that more detail about the caffeine content of the drink would have saved her?  Her own doctors didn’t even tell her to limit her caffeine intake.

3) There actually is a warning on the side of Monster Energy cans:

Monster Energy Label With Warning

Consume responsibly – Limit 3 cans per day.  Not recommended for children, Pregnant women, or people sensitive to caffeine.

Again, though, this poor girl’s doctors didn’t even tell her to avoid caffeine!

4) Monster Energy claims to have sold over 8 billion cans of their energy drink in aggregate.  According to a Businessweek article:

“The five death reports, and a sixth in 2009, were among 37 adverse reaction reports since 2004 that mentioned Monster drinks, according to a log of incidents that health professionals, companies and the public voluntarily recorded with the FDA. The agency has said it’s working on draft guidelines that would ensure energy drinks are safe. “

So we’re talking about 37 adverse reaction reports out of 8 billion cans consumed!

5) How much caffeine is in these drinks anyway?   I’ll let Jacob Sullem at Reason.com summarize for you, emphasis mine:

“How does the caffeine content of Monster drinks compare to those of other widely consumed beverages? According to Energy Fiend, most Monster varietities have 10 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce. (The Mayo Clinic concurs.) That’s more than twice as much as Mountain Dew (4.5 mg/ounce) but 44 percent less than drip coffee (about 18 mg/ounce) and one-fifth as much as espresso (around 50 mg/ounce). At a concentration of 10mg/ounce, a 24-ounce can of Monster would contain substantially less caffeine than a large (16-ounce) Starbucks coffee. If Monster is recklessly endangering consumers, so is Starbucks.

In summary, what I see here is the following:

A young girl consumed a product that has a decent amount of caffeine in it.   This young girl was unaware of the dangers caffeine posed to her body, given her physical condition.   Although her doctors knew about her condition, they failed to warn her about her caffeine sensitivity.    The product that she consumed, while not listing the exact caffeine content on the label, contained a warning about caffeine sensitivity.

I can’t add up those facts and blame Monster Energy here, but if you can, and you disagree with me, please leave your intelligent, well thought out argument in the comments.  Please note – I’m speaking somewhat philosophically as a pragmatist here, not as a lawyer, as usual.

Might I disagree with the way energy drinks are marketed?  Absolutely.   Might I choose not to drink them?  Sure.   However,  I haven’t seen the data that shows that these drinks are rampantly poisoning our youth** (or our adults), or that their caffeine dangers are any greater than a much more widely consumed product:  coffee.    More importantly, I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that Ms. Anais Fornier’s death could have been prevented by a stricter warning on the label of the can.

So, yes, sure:  let’s have more warnings on the cans, and let’s try to educate consumers about the potential dangers of energy drinks, coffee, soda, lightning storms, and swimming with sharks – but let’s also not pretend that we will be able to keep everyone out of harms way at all times.   I don’t want to play the Blame Game over who is at fault for Ms. Fornier’s death, but I would certainly look to her doctors – who knew of her conditions but failed to warn her not to consume caffeine – before I look to Monster Energy.

 

NYT: FDA Receives Death Reports Citing Monster Energy High Caffeine Drink

The Actual Lawsuit

Reason.Com: If Monster Is Recklessly Endangering Consumers, So Is Starbucks ($SBUX: no positions)

Senator Battling FDA Over Energy Drinks

Ehlers-Danos Syndrome

-KD

 

* cause of death, from the Complaint: “cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity complicating mitral valve regurgitation in the settling of Ehlers-Danos Syndrome”

**  On caffeine consumption in adolescents, via the “Senator Battling FDA Over Energy Drinks” link just above:

“Durbin and Blumenthal’s Sept. 11, 2012 letter also notes that FDA neglected to address the safety of health risks posed by caffeine to young people—the primary audience for many types of energy drinks. FDA’s response letter noted that healthy adults can consume up to 400 mg caffeine per day, but the senator notes “the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents consume no more than 100 mg of caffeine daily,” and that “numerous studies cite that young people are especially susceptible to suffering adverse health effects due to consuming large quantities of caffeine.” Therefore, the senators urge FDA to “include adolescents and children in their assessment of the safety risks posed by consuming high levels of caffeine, such as those in energy drinks.”

Again, my response would be: show me the data that shows that these drinks are posing a significant harm to the adolescents of our nation.   The Complaint cites a statistic: the number of ER visits due to caffeine overdoses increased from 1,128 in 2005 to 16,055 in 2008, and 13,114 in 2009.    Of course, those numbers are not “number of people who go to the ER from drinking energy drinks” – there are other factors involved, like alcohol, and they are certainly not all adolescents.  My point, however, is that even if we use the higher 16,000 number (instead of the 37 adverse reaction reports cited earlier), this problem doesn’t seem widespread.  If we’re talking about a roughly $ 4Billion / year industry, let’s just round that down to one billion units per year.  16,000 / 1,000,000,000

 

postscript – Another issue I’ve heard discussed is the insinuation of some sort of insider trading, as MNST stock sold off in the days prior to yesterday’s NY Times article, and put volumes (betting on a decline in price) exploded higher.  Well, the complaint was filed on October 17th – you can see the stamp right on the document – so it was public information.

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