Graduate student derides alcoholic energy drinks at conference

Cristobal Matibag

Ashley Hunter, Thielen Health Center graduate assistant, warned students, teachers and prevention specialists Tuesday about the dangers of mixing energy drinks and alcohol. 

Hunter, graduate in public administration, delivered a presentation titled “Energy Drinks And Alcohol: What is All of the Buzz About?” at Risky Business, an annual conference organized by Youth & Shelter Services.

Problems associated with alcohol and energy drinks tend to occur and reoccur in a college setting, Hunter said.

Before addressing the current availability and popularity of alcoholic energy drinks, Hunter reviewed the history of the beverages.  

Hunter accused beverage makers of trying to obscure information about their products’ alcohol content by printing it in tiny, cluttered type on containers. She also said they had designed the containers to resemble those of non-alcoholic beverages like soft drinks.

“It’s really hard to know how much alcohol you’re drinking when they try to hide it from you,” she said.

Alcoholic energy drinks looked superficially similar to non-alcoholic drinks and were often displayed separately from other alcoholic beverages. Hunter said minors had found it easy to purchase them illegally for these reasons. Store attendants, misled by the packaging and location of the drinks, sometimes sold them the drinks unwittingly.

Ease of purchase was just one of the qualities that attracted young people to the drinks. Another was their high caffeine content. Hunter said some pre-ban alcoholic energy drinks could contain as much as 300 percent more caffeine by volume than cola.

In addition to sporting above-average levels of caffeine, some drinks packed uncommonly high levels of alcohol. One 23.5 oz. beverage Hunter cited contained 12 percent alcohol by volume; meaning that somebody who drank it in one sitting would have consumed the equivalent of five to six beers.

The drinks’ prices, which were often lower than those of their non-alcoholic equivalents, were a significant selling point for young drinkers, who often seek the cheapest buzz they can find.  

Hunter said  “caffeinated drunks” are greater dangers to themselves than people who drank alcohol by itself, because caffeine’s stimulant effect keeps them from realizing how impaired they are. She cited a 2010 University of Florida-Gainesville study that found them four times more likely to say they intended to drink and drive. 

The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division has barred retailers from selling caffeine-enhanced alcoholic drinks since December 2010 [corrected from: 2009]. The FDA imposed a national ban on their sale in November 2010. Four Loko makers Phusion Projects removed the caffeine from their alcoholic beverages last year. MillerCoors, maker of the similarly popular Sparks, removed caffeine from that product in January 2009.  

Hunter said that despite having undergone these changes, the reformulated drinks still pose a threat to public health. She noted how easy it was for drinkers to add caffeine of their own to the drinks. She also said that even without caffeine, the drinks’ high sugar content could keep people from realizing how much alcohol they were ingesting. 

Hunter ended her presentation with a list of reasons for avoiding caffeine-and-alcohol mixes. She said they compounded the addictive nature of alcohol, caused especially bad hangovers, raised blood pressure and increased the risk of alcohol poisoning.

She advised her audience to read the labels on their drink containers carefully, always monitor the amount they drink and avoid binge drinking, which she defined as the consumption of five or more drinks in a single sitting. 

Jeriann McLaughlin, a teacher specializing in mentoring and tutoring at-risk students at Ballard High School, said she appreciated all the information Hunter gave. McLaughlin was especially grateful for a chart the graduate student had provided for calculating one’s blood-alcohol content, predicting that she would use it as a teaching aid in the classroom.

Arthur Freeman, lead youth addiction specialist at Ames’ Seven 12 halfway house, said the negative effects of caffeinated alcohol on teens were going to continue because they are naturally attracted to things that are forbidden or perceived as dangerous.

“Caffeinated energy drinks are more attractive because of the rebellious nature of teenagers,” Freeman said.