On Thursday, the same day that federal reports surfaced suggesting a link between 5-Hour Energy Shots and 13 deaths, two young women were handing out free samples of the supplement on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, including special pink ones.
"Hmm. Pink lemonade? Will this make me wired?" asked Corey Mirt, a 30-year old Highmark employee who grabbed a 2-ounce pink version of the supplement -- for breast cancer awareness -- on his way back to the office.
Providing that energy boost is what 5-Hour Energy ("Made for Hard Working People") is supposed to do, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating reports of 13 deaths over the past four years citing the possible involvement of the caffeine energy supplement, the New York Times reported Thursday.
Last month, the FDA had received five other fatality reports that mentioned Monster Energy, which also contains high doses of caffeine but is classified as a beverage, not a supplement.
In a statement, FDA officials said they were continuing to investigate patient reports involving 5-Hour Energy, noting that there have been a total of 92 such reports, 33 hospitalizations and 13 deaths since 2009, and stressed that the filing of a report with the agency doesn't mean there's any culpability by a product's manufacturer.
Such links are difficult to prove, the agency added.
The 5-Hour Energy supplements are produced by a Michigan-based company, Living Essentials, which did not return requests for comment, but in a statement provided to the New York Times, the company said the product was safe when used as directed and that it was "unaware of any deaths proven to be caused by the consumption of 5-Hour Energy."
Still, Consumer Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, urged the FDA to take more immediate action.
A bill requiring greater oversight of energy beverages and other supplements -- along with tougher standards for industry labeling and reporting -- was introduced in Congress in 2011 but has gone nowhere.
The makers of 5-Hour Energy Shots do not disclose the amount of caffeine in each 2-ounce bottle, but in October, Consumer Reports Magazine identified the caffeine amount at about 215 milligrams, compared to an eight-ounce cup of coffee, which usually contains 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine.
The magazine also listed caffeine levels in 27 top-selling energy drinks and shots, and found some had more than listed on the label and some less.
"The caffeine levels in these drinks are all over the board," said Leslie Bonci, director of Sports Nutrition at UPMC. She says high-energy drinks are frequently a topic in her talks to high school athletes all over the country about the importance of proper nutrition -- especially before exercising.
"The problem is when you have some young person -- and we still don't know much about kids' caffeine sensitivity -- taking so much caffeine that their heart is racing, and on top of that they go and exercise."
A teenager who decides to drink a 5-Hour Energy shot to enhance performance before an event will be making a mistake, she added. "There's no way they'll be energized for five hours," and they'd be much better off eating a granola bar or a peanut butter sandwich.
Still, these beverages and supplements are everywhere: on the streets, online, at CVS and Giant Eagle, at convenience stores. Celebrities endorse them, truck drivers, night shift workers and students cramming for exams scarf them down.
Some are marketed to the overscheduled working parent or student holding two jobs. "Finding the energy for work and family responsibilities is hard enough. Throw in a second job, go back to school, or simply have a sleepless night, and you're bound to hit the wall," say the advertisements for 5-Hour Energy Shots.
Even at that temple of caffeine consumption, Starbucks, employees have been known to chug a Red Bull, although one barista at Downtown's Market Square branch, Patrick (who declined to give his last name), said he preferred the Monster beverage "because it has more of a lime taste."
On the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Facebook page, the consensus was mostly a collective shrug, with a strong dose of libertarianism ("Oh man more control by big brother... give me a break!!!"), with many posters positing that more people die from crossing the street, drinking water or driving on highways.
Because 5-Hour Energy is marketed in very small doses and not heated, "it can be consumed quickly and all of the caffeine hits the system at once," noted one poster. "Personally I know this stuff would be very dangerous for me. I don't think it should be illegal, but it should (if it doesn't already) have warnings all over it."
Bill Swoope, a co-founder of Coffee Tree Roasters, a local chain of coffee bars, knows about caffeine -- he drinks about seven half-cups of coffee a day. At age 74, he's not bothered by it. "If I drank a cup at night, I'd be fine, although if I drank two, I'd be in trouble."
Perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn't understand the allure of these drinks. "What do you need them for, when you could have a really nice cup of coffee instead, or a hot mocha, or a latte?"
Not far from where free samples of 5-Hour Energy Shot were being handed out, Gregory T. Rogers, professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Point Park University, sat in front of the Subway shop in Market Square and shook his head.
"More people die in car wrecks or from prescription overdoses than they'll ever die from an energy drink. But I'll never drink it. I'd be so wired -- this is bad enough," he said, taking a sip of his iced tea.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com or 412-263-1949.