October 13th, 2006

Lost Without Their Lattes

By Sarah Viren
Houston Chronicle

As the coffee culture gets a jolt, a green-and-white cup is now a must-have accessory for teenagers but is it healthy?

On April 1, Kingwood High School’s student newspaper played a cruel joke on the student body: It reported that the campus was getting a Starbucks.

“Then it said ‘April Fools,’ “ recalled Emily Preston, 16, a self-described coffee addict. “We were just like, ‘No!’ “
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Starbucks, the company that revolutionized the cup of joe in the U.S., said its marketing doesn’t target youths. But the hype it inspired has inevitably spilled into their universe.

The social Web site MySpace.com has Starbucks fan pages, where teens confess their love for the chain. Schools including at least two in the Houston area have opened coffee bars, and market researchers and doctors are noting increases in teen coffee consumption.

Market analyst Bill Hulkower, whose company, Mintel International, recently published a report on teen spending, credits sweet drinks and the grown-up allure of coffee with sparking this enthusiasm. The chain store also offers something else teens find tantalizing: a place to hang out.

“With 8,300 outlets in high-pedestrian areas, I don’t know you need to do a lot of marketing,” Hulkower said. “Teens don’t have a lot of areas they can hang out in.”

Not everyone is cheering the trend, though.

Detractors complain that the sugary, high-caffeine drinks have shown up in schools just as candy bars and sodas, blamed for contributing to childhood obesity, are being yanked out.

Gary Ruskin, head of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group that opposes underage advertising, says Starbucks targets the younger-than-18 market. One example, he said, is a new Monopoly game, which features a Starbucks coffee cup as a player piece.

“Given that many of their products are unhealthy they are high in sugar and high in calories and high in caffeine that’s a problem,” he said.

A 16-ounce “grande” Caffe Mocha with whole milk and whipped cream has 400 calories and 22 grams of fat, according to the company’s Web site. That’s the equivalent of about two Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts.

A Starbucks spokeswoman said the stores’ inviting atmosphere is a main customer draw, but added, “We recognize that some of our products may appeal to children, and we trust their parents to help them make good choices.”

Studying caffeine’s effects
Although caffeine is the most widely used stimulant worldwide, its effects, especially on children and teens, have not been adequately studied, researchers say.

The Food and Drug Administration sets no limits on recommended daily consumption, so many pediatricians use Canadian standards when advising parents. Under those, children ages 10 to 12 should have no more than about 85 milligrams per day, roughly the amount in two cans of Mountain Dew, and adults are safe staying between 400 and 450 milligrams, or little more than three cups of typical coffee.

Studies, including one in 2004 by the Wall Street Journal, have found higher-than-average caffeine levels in Starbucks drinks. The company doesn’t list caffeine content on its Web site, but says its “tall,” 12-ounce regular coffee registered about 195 milligrams.

Financing a habit
Although some doctors worry that too much caffeine hurts already sleep-deprived youths, teens like Wes Brown said they need the extra jolt.

The 17-year-old, who once joked on MySpace that he loved Starbucks as much as his girlfriend, first visited the chain in middle school.

“I would get a hot chocolate and then one day I was like, ‘You know I will try something else because hot chocolate is not doing it for me anymore: There is just not enough caffeine,’ “ he said.

Wes affords the drinks by doing chores around the house. Other teens say they’ve requested Starbucks gift cards for holidays or taken after-school jobs to help pay for $4 drinks.

Not every teen has the extra cash, though. On his blog recently, one Houston teenager fretted that Starbucks was stealing all his money and his sleep. The company just recently increased its prices by a nickel.

Wes’ mother, Karlotta, a fan of the nonfat Caramel Macchiato, has no problems with her son’s habit: He could be doing worse things, she said.

And at Kingwood High School, where Wes is a student, Starbucks habits are more the norm than counter-culture.

School officials say they tried to hop on the bandwagon. Three years ago, they opened a coffee kiosk on campus, but low sales forced it to close.

Karen Collier, the district’s spokeswoman, said the drinks just weren’t “cool.”

“We needed to charge more for it,” she joked.

On-campus coffee bars
Kingwood is not the only school to give coffee franchising a try.

Officials in Spring Branch ISD tried tapping into that market, said Chris Kamradt, the district’s director of child nutrition services. But concerns about the drinks’ nutritional value nixed his plans.

Principal Steve Amstutz of Houston ISD’s Lee High, said his school’s cozy Java City cafe, which opened two years ago, has made his school a better place to learn. The cafe, run through an agreement with the food service company Aramark, serves coffee drinks but no straight coffee. It is one of 10 Java City cafes started in U.S. high schools since 2003.

“We were trying to find ways to make things inside interesting, adultlike,” Amstutz said. “Starbucks coffee or whoever coffee: They’ve got that aura about them now.”

Lynn Altman, author of the book Brand It Yourself, said teenagers are notoriously brand-loyal. So if Starbucks gave them a taste for coffee, this trend likely won’t go away.

“As the younger kids grow up with it, their kids will start even younger,” she said. “Who knows, maybe one day you will put a little Starbucks milk box in their lunch box.”

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