WASHINGTON, DC–The Office of the Surgeon General issued a warning Monday that sustained use of Mountain Dew–an addictive, caffeinated soft drink popular in youth-counterculture circles–may lead to the use of such harder beverages as Surge, Jolt, and even espresso.

Mountain Dew

"There are children as young as 10 in this country who regularly do the Dew," Surgeon General David Satcher said. "While the risks associated with use of this extreme soda are lower than those of other, even more caffeinated substances, the decision to become a Mountain Dew user sends a young person down a dangerous path. It is the first step on the journey to hardcore beverage use."

"'It's only Mountain Dew–I can handle it,' is something I hear all too often," Satcher added.

According to UCLA Medical Center addiction specialist Dr. Audra Hurst, Mountain Dew is a "gateway beverage," one that serves as a bridge between safe drinks like orange juice and milk and dangerous substances like black tea and "Water Joe," the street name for a powerful strain of chemically enhanced caffeinated water.

"Everyone is familiar with the frightening image of the trembling, barely functional coffee addict, unable to face the world without his morning fix," Hurst said. "But few people think about the beverages that coffee junkie started out on before working his way up to that pathetic state."

"Regular Mountain Dew use sets the stage for far more serious things," said Lenora Nunez, president of Think Before You Drink, a New York-based soft-drink-industry watchdog group. "You get hooked on it and, suddenly, walking into a Starbucks and ordering a double mochaccino with 144 mg of caffeine or slugging down a carton of Strawberry Quik at 90 grams of sugar a pop doesn't seem like the taboo it once was."

Early-stage Mountain Dew users describe experiencing a sweet, highly pleasurable oral sensation and, in high doses, a rush of energy known as "doing the Dew." In certain users, the product also induces feelings of extreme confidence and invulnerability, leading them to engage in such high-risk activities as bungee-jumping and skydiving.

Former Mountain Dew drinkers who admit to using coffee daily.

"What many users don't realize until it's too late is that when the effects of the Mountain Dew wear off, their energy level plummets and they immediately start looking for another Mountain Dew, sending them spiraling downward into a cycle of dependence," Nunez said. "Before they're even aware of it, the user has developed a profound psychological and physical dependence to the Dew."

Because it is legal and its use widespread, Mountain Dew is often assumed to be safe. The drink, however, is known to pose many medical risks. Clinical studies have linked its consumption to rapid heartbeat, insomnia, diuresis, anxiety, hyperactivity, and the inability to concentrate.

In a trend Nunez calls "alarming," recent studies have shown that the average age at which a child drinks his or her first Mountain Dew is plummeting, while recreational use among young people is sharply on the rise.

"A young child does not possess the maturity and decision-making faculties necessary to use Mountain Dew responsibly," Nunez said. "I've seen kids as young as seven walk up to a soda machine on a street corner and plug their money in."

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that parents often dismiss their children's Mountain Dew use as harmless soda experimentation, something they themselves did when they were young.

"Mountain Dew came into vogue in the late '70s as a performance-enhancing beverage, consumed by young people seeking to prolong their enjoyment of such activities as horseback riding and rope-swinging over swimming holes," Hurst said. "But that was a far more innocent time. Today, we know a lot more about the costs of recreational Dew use and what it can lead to."

Despite such warnings, most regular users dismiss the notion that Mountain Dew is a gateway drink.

"That's a bunch of bull," said Troy DeSilva, 31, a Petoskey, MI, auto mechanic who started drinking Mountain Dew at 13. "What about the millions of decent, tax-paying, home-owning Mountain Dew users who have never gone on to use any harder beverages? Why don't we hear about them?"

"I've been a six-pack-a-day Mountain Dew drinker for almost 20 years, and it hasn't negatively affected me whatsoever," DeSilva continued. "If it did, I could quit any time I wanted to."