"Speedballs" in a can

Law enforcement copes with young people's use of popular energy drinks containing or combined with alcohol


     Two college students on a train disguised their alcoholic beverages inside brown paper bags, while another didn't bother to cover up the fact that he was drinking a can of the caffeinated alcohol beverage, Sparks. To many observers, the undisguised can appeared to be a soda, recalls Michele Simon, research and policy director of alcohol industry watchdog, the Marin Institute, of the situation she witnessed on the train that day.

     On the other hand, anyone drinking "Cocaine" from a can might get a second look. The name of this popular energy drink is in the United States again, according to Redux Beverages LLC, after being known as "No Name" or "Insert Name Here" while the company was responding to an FDA letter warning about its marketing practices. Cocaine, the energy drink, is a legal and highly caffeinated (280 mg) energy drink (with no alcohol).

     The point is that energy drinks can be confusing and, as a result, adults today are often clueless. Simon, JD, MPH, points out there are few TV commercials for the top selling brand. (PepsiCo Inc. ran a commercial for AMP Energy during the Super Bowl.) Instead, the Internet and word of mouth ("viral marketing") are used to spread the word about alcoholic energy drinks, which typically contain 6 to 8 percent alcohol.

     Sorting out which energy drinks have alcohol can be tiring, but law enforcement officers need to be in the know. They need to know about energy drinks' alcoholic brothers — the AEDs or alcoholic energy drinks — and what happens when an energy drink is mixed with alcohol.

A dangerous mix

     Not many energy drinks have an alcoholic version. However, drinkers sometimes combine nonalcoholic energy drinks with alcohol to create their own AED. For example, Red Bull and vodka, known in some circles as a "speedball," is a popular combination.

     Premixed alcoholic energy drinks provide an inexpensive alternative to purchasing two beverages separately. In fact, Marin Institute research found that in some California convenience stores, alcoholic energy drinks were less expensive than nonalcoholic ones. Premixed alcoholic energy drinks can be the same size, shape and even have the same graphics as nonalcoholic versions, which can create confusion over whether or not the drinks contain alcohol.

     Cpl. Emmit Byrd, who is the underage drinking coordinator for the Mobile (Alabama) Police Department, agrees that energy drinks containing alcohol are packaged similarly to those that do not. However, he says, "the drinks containing alcohol are located in the section with other alcoholic beverages. If a person looks at the container, he can see that the drink contains alcohol and the percentage of alcohol in the drink."

     His department performs compliance checks targeting alcohol of all types (not only alcoholic energy drinks) to combat underage drinking. The first time an undercover police cadet tried to purchase alcoholic energy drinks was in December 2007. During this compliance check, the cadet, age 19, was able to buy alcoholic energy drinks in five out of 10 stores.

     Byrd encourages other law enforcement agencies to raise awareness of alcoholic energy drinks by including these beverages in overall compliance checks. The Mobile PD also educates the public through in-service classes for employees of businesses that hold alcohol licenses and through lectures at schools, churches and community groups.

     The combination of alcohol, energy drinks and youth is "a dangerous mix."

     Combining energy drinks with alcohol brings together two drugs that have the opposite effect, says Simon, who with James Mosher of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation authored the report "Alcohol, Energy Drinks, and Youth: A Dangerous Mix."

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