"Speedballs" in a can

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

     "People who mix alcohol and energy drinks will walk out of bars thinking they're OK to drive because they don't pass out drunk," O'Brien says. "They have all this caffeine in their system but they're every bit as drunk as they would be if they didn't have caffeine in their system."

     O'Brien gives an example of a driver swerving down the road but when he gets out of his car, he's wide awake. When stopped by officers he says he's not drunk. At the stop, law enforcement officers need to consider whether he's mixed alcohol with energy drinks. "His motor skills are impaired but he doesn't think he's drunk, so you might not initially think he is either," she explains.

     In moderation, O'Brien says there's nothing wrong with an energy drink. However, she adds "I don't think they should be mixed with alcohol in any way — even once. I just think it's dangerous."

     James Wesley, M.S., a clinical toxicologist and forensic chemist, has been researching energy drinks since 2001. Among his concerns are people who consume alcoholic energy drinks while at work, and then drive home. When Wesley interviewed 20-somethings, they said alcoholic energy drinks make them feel both alert and relaxed at the same time. They reported that when they drank energy drinks without alcohol, they felt nervous by the end of the day. With alcoholic energy drinks, they said this nervous feeling was not a problem. Wesley likens alcoholic energy potions to prescription Desbutal from the 1960s, which contained methamphetamine and pentobarbital and was said to relieve tension and anxiety while producing a sense of well-being and increased energy.

Top cops call for change

     In addition to being aware of alcoholic energy drinks and the effects they have on a person's perception of impairment, Simon says law enforcement should make calls for national policy change, as well as a call for the alcohol industry to stop marketing these products. When he took an in-depth look at the alcohol industry's marketing practices promoting these power potions, Simon found the themes (risk-taking behaviors and sex) and strategies used on the Internet to target youth disturbing.

     "It really does take all of us (including law enforcement, parents, public health officials and advocacy groups) together to put pressure on the industry to stop marketing these products," she says.

     Last year, 29 state attorneys general wrote a letter asking the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to expand its efforts to prevent misleading health-related statements from being made in connection with the beverages. They also asked the TTB to investigate the formulation of these drinks to determine whether they are properly classified as malt beverages under federal law.

     In their letter, they wrote: "Adding caffeine and other stimulants to alcohol may increase risk to young consumers, because those additives tend to reduce the perception of intoxication and make greater quantities of alcohol palatable. Moreover, most alcoholic energy drinks are categorized as malt beverages even though their alcohol by volume is significantly greater than that of beer. This classification renders alcoholic energy drinks more readily available to young people, because malt beverages can be purchased in many more places, and at significantly lower prices, than distilled spirits."

     They listed a number of products and advertisements that "warrant investigation and possible enforcement action." Among the products named were: Miller Brewing Company's Sparks and Sparks Plus, Anheuser-Busch's Bud Extra, and Charge Beverage's Liquid Charge and Liquid Core. Earlier in 2007 after state attorneys general expressed their concern about the alcoholic energy drink Spykes in a letter to Anheuser-Bush, the company pulled it from the market.

     Commending the attorneys general, Simon says companies boast their products will enhance energy and alertness but fail to warn users of the potential for misjudging their own level of intoxication.

     "We know from common sense that combining caffeine with alcohol is not a good idea," she says. "We should really put the burden of proof on the alcohol industry to prove these products are safe — just as we do with prescription medication. Unfortunately with alcohol, we're not treating it as seriously. It's a drug. Now we're combining it with another drug."

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