"Speedballs" in a can

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

     "A drug designed to keep you awake is combined with a drug that alters your motor skills and general judgment," Simon says. "Then, you throw into the mix young people, who are inclined to take risks, think they're invincible and consume energy drinks to stay awake longer or to get drunk faster and longer. And then, of course, they have the potential to harm themselves and others."

     After taking care of a badly intoxicated college student who had been up all night drinking alcohol mixed with energy drinks, Dr. Mary Claire O'Brien, a board-certified emergency physician, set out to determine the prevalence of mixing alcohol with energy drinks. An associate professor of emergency medicine and public health sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, O'Brien also wanted to learn whether there were associations with high-risk drinking behaviors and connections with serious alcohol-related consequences.

     In fall 2006, Web-based surveys were administered to stratified random samples of 4,271 college students from 10 North Carolina universities. Students answered questions regarding alcohol use, its consequences and other risky behaviors. Results of the survey showed 24 percent, or roughly one in four students, reported drinking alcohol mixed with energy drinks.

     O'Brien then wondered if, as her patient suggested, students were mixing alcohol with energy drinks so that they could drink more without passing out. In other words, the survey sought to find out whether there was an association with high-risk drinking.

     The answer, according to the survey, is: Yes, there is an association with more drinks in a typical drinking episode, more days spent binge drinking, more days drunk in a typical week, and a greater number of drinks consumed in a single drinking episode when energy drinks are part of the equation. In fact, O'Brien says the survey found that students who mixed alcohol with energy drinks had twice as many episodes of weekly drunkenness.

     These high-risk drinking behaviors then led to serious alcohol-related consequences. According to the study, students who consumed alcohol mixed with energy drinks say they were twice as likely to:

  • Take advantage of someone else sexually as a result of their drinking.
  • Ride with a driver who was under the influence of alcohol.
  • Become hurt or injured.
  • Need medical treatment.

     And, students report they were nearly twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually.

     O'Brien says students who drink alcohol mixed with energy drinks are at increased risk for alcohol-related consequences, even after adjusting for the amount of alcohol consumed.

Impairing the perception of impairment

     The dangers of mixing energy drinks with alcohol extend beyond youth, however.

     Brazilian researchers conducted the first controlled scientific study on the effects of combining alcohol with Red Bull. "Effects of Energy Drink Ingestion on Alcohol Intoxication" was published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 30 (4), 598-605. The results of this study released in 2006 include:

  • Drinking alcohol and Red Bull together significantly reduces the perception of headache, weakness, dry mouth and impairment of motor coordination.
  • Red Bull does not significantly reduce alcohol-related deficits on objective measures of motor coordination and visual reaction time.
  • People who combine alcohol with energy drinks may be at even greater risk for problems such as automobile accidents because they believe they are unimpaired.

     "Alcohol affects not only the motor coordination but the capacity of decision, because it affects one important area of the brain — the prefrontal cortex," explained an author of the study, Maria Lucia Oliveira de Souza Formigoni of the Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the time the study was published. "Drunk drivers are dangerous not only because their reactions are delayed and motor coordination affected, but mainly because their capacity to evaluate the risks to which they will be exposed is also affected. People need to understand that the 'sensation' of well-being does not necessarily mean that they are unaffected by alcohol. Despite how good they may feel, they shouldn't drink and drive."

     In other words, people might not think they are drunk after consuming these supplement-laced energy drinks.

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