What college student doesn’t like to party all night? For years partygoers have been mixing Red Bull and vodka to help them party until dawn. Now, the beverage industry has capitalized on this trend by introducing premixed caffeinated alcoholic beverages. These new energy booze drinks are sold in colorful oversized cans with names like Joose and Four Loko. However, after a recent cluster of incidents that left several college students hospitalized after consuming these drinks, the safety and legality of these drinks is now under intense scrutiny.
The physiological effects of consuming a combination of a stimulant, like caffeine, and a depressant, like alcohol, are not completely understood. Many experts describe the effect as an alert drunkenness, resulting in a false sense of sobriety that can lead to dangerous behavior.
The FDA started investigating the caffeine/alcohol drinks in 2009, but has yet to rule on the issue. A few manufacturers voluntarily pulled their product from the market after learning of the FDA’s investigation. Meanwhile, several lawmakers support a ban, citing the dangers of overconsumption, as well as marketing efforts that seem to target underage drinkers. In the past few weeks, at least one college has taken steps to prohibit the drinks on campus.
In a 2008 study examining the association between mixing caffeine with alcohol and risky behaviors among college students, 20% of drinkers who reported mixing energy drinks with alcohol said they did so to reduce the feeling or appearance of drunkenness so that they could drink more. Notably, the study found that regardless of the amount of alcohol they consumed, students who drank alcohol mixed with energy drinks were more likely than students who drank other alcoholic beverages to suffer alcohol-related consequences, including suffering injuries, engaging in risky sexual behavior, and riding with an intoxicated driver. The researchers suggest that although alcohol consumption impairs motor skills and reaction times, the caffeine masks the typical signs of intoxication such as dizziness, headache, and fatigue. Consequently, drinkers do not perceive themselves to be drunk, prompting them to continue to consume more alcohol.
If you choose to consume caffeinated alcoholic beverages, don’t let their sexy marketing fool you. Even though these drinks are packaged and marketed, and even priced, similarly to non-alcoholic energy drinks — the drinks currently on the market contain 6 to 12 percent alcohol. That is over three times the amount in some beers, and typically have more caffeine than an 8 oz. cup of coffee.