Drop by a Starbucks coffee shop any day after school, and you're likely to find a gaggle of teens, sipping frothy lattes and soaking up the ambience.
Then check out the beverage aisle at the grocery store. Old standbys like Coca-Cola and Pepsi - and their higher-caffeine cousins Mountain Dew and Jolt - have been joined by new high-caffeine drinks with names like Surge, a citrus soda, and Water Joe, a caffeinated-water product.
Caffeine is in, and young people are a big marketing target.
Though there are no statistics for recent years showing an increase in caffeine consumption among kids, anecdotal evidence suggests it could be on the horizon.
Before sporting events, parents report, adolescents will down a Mountain Dew or a Jolt for the rush. In suburban Boston, a disgruntled mother speaks of her elementary school-aged son who stayed up all night drinking Pepsi with his pals at a slumber party. And then there are the gourmet coffee bars, where the sweet, frosty frappes, in particular, appeal to younger palates.
"Caffeine is the drug of choice for kids in the '90s," says Gerald Celente, editor of the Trends Journal.
"Every young kid likes to be like an older person, and now that it's harder for them to move into alcohol, kids are going to soda and other caffeinated beverages."
Caffeine has no nutritional value and can make a person jittery and dull the appetite. Nutritionists also warn that little is known about the stimulant's long-term effects on children, and urge parents to exercise caution.
Some scientists who study caffeine even draw parallels to the use of nicotine in cigarettes, which the tobacco industry long argued was added as a flavor enhancer and not for its drug-like effects. Indeed, representatives of major soft-drink companies are always sure to point out that caffeine is added because it's a flavor, not because it's a stimulant.
It is no longer believed that caffeine stunts growth, but some researchers are still concerned about how this mood-altering drug affects children.
"We know that adults get physically dependent on caffeine," says Roland Griffiths, an expert on caffeine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"There's at least one preliminary report on children getting physically dependent on caffeine, and that very shortly will become apparent in other studies."
Terry Barker, marketing director of Interstellar Beverage Co. in Springfield, Mass., doesn't sound too worried about caffeine dependency. Rather, he's hoping to tap into the market of people looking for a legal rush.
His company - whose motto is "Ingestible Fluids to Enhance Yer Hyperactive Lifestyle" - sells Krank20, one of the new caffeinated waters on the market.
Mr. Barker says the target market is 15-to-50-year-olds - young people into extreme sports, students, truck drivers, Wall Street traders - but the company Web site is clearly aimed at the younger end of the crowd.
"Krank20 is WATER with CAFFEINE, LOTS of caffeine. All that we could get away with," the page shouts from a loud purple background with psychedelic illustrations.
At least consumers know what they're getting, Barker says in defense of his product. He finds a beverage like Sunkist orange soda, which has contains caffeine but has an image as a kids' drink, more insidious.
Soft-drink industry analysts say caffeinated waters - and a sister beverage, caffeinated orange juice, for people who want a boost in the morning but don't like coffee or tea - are too new on the market to assess their viability.
Mr. Celente of the Trends Journal thinks these new products may well go the way of Clear Pepsi.
But the fact that many kids want the stimulant effect of caffeine is unmistakable. By the time their children are teens, parents often find it difficult to keep them away from soft drinks and coffee.
It's all relative
Nancy Heermans, a Washington lawyer with three kids, says her elementary-school-age daughter doesn't drink caffeine - maybe one or two sodas a week. But her high-school-age daughter now often starts her day with a cup of coffee.
"With teens these days, there are so many issues, and that's not one of them," says Ms. Heermans. "I know it's a drug, but I think it's a fairly innocuous drug."
Some parents find their best efforts to keep their children caffeine-free undermined by other adults.
In the Boston area, the coach of a youth soccer team recently instructed his players to go home and drink Coke between matches. When a mother questioned this, he recalled an earlier game in which the other team was clearly "jolted" up on something. His conclusion: "Pharmacology is a fair weapon."
(Sports nutritionists recommend against drinking caffeinated and carbonated beverages before a game. Both are dehydrators.)
The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest is preparing to petition the Food and Drug Administration to require companies to list caffeine content on the labels of all foods and drinks that contain more than trace amounts. In the past, the FDA has resisted such efforts, saying there was not enough scientific evidence supporting the need for labeling. The FDA already restricts the amount of caffeine that may be added to soft drinks.
For now, most Americans don't have a clue about how much caffeine is in a 12-ounce can of Coke (47 mg) or an 8-ounce cup of Starbucks regular coffee (140 mg) or that Sunkist contains caffeine at all. But if they did, say researchers, they could make more-informed choices about what they're drinking.
Caffeine Content Of Popular Drinks 12-Ounce Soft Drinks:
Jolt cola 71
Mountain Dew (US) 55
Coca-Cola classic 47
Diet Coke 47
Water Joe 45
Mr. Pibb 41
Dr. Pepper 40
Sunkist orange 40
Pepsi Cola 37
Diet Pepsi 36
Barq's Root Beer 23
Mug Root Beer 0
7 Up 0
Sundrop orange 0
Other Beverages: (8 ounces)
Starbucks Coffee 140
Espresso (2 ounces) 100
Tea (brewed) 57
Hot cocoa 14
Decaf coffee (brewed) 5
SOURCES: Coca-Cola Co.; Hershey Foods; Mars, Incorporated; Nestl USA, Inc.; Starbucks Corporation; US Food and Drug Administration; Monitor research.