An Alcohol-Caffeine Ban Won’t Work

The genie is out of the bottle.

Mixing energy drinks and distilled spirits has become a popular trend in the U.S., particularly, among college age students. However, a few isolated incidents in which alcohol-energy drinks (AEDs) were implicated in the alcohol poisoning of some students, has prompted the FDA to consider a ban on the sale of AEDs while others are calling for a ban on all mixing of alcohol and caffeine (no more rum and Cokes). In particular, the drink Four Loko has become the focal point of those calling for a ban.  But removing the drinks from the market will not stop people from drinking alcohol and caffeine together. But that is just one of many problems with the proposal to ban AEDs.

First, the research that draws a link between alcoholic energy drinks and health risks is limited and dubious. Second, a ban will not stop people from mixing alcohol and caffeine at home and the results of that could be worse than a pre-mixed AED which states the amount of caffeine and alcohol on the can. Third, even if risks are associated with the consumption of alcohol and caffeine it should be up to the individual to make that decision, not a government agency.

Research: Under the Influence

The mix of caffeine and “stimulants” with alcohol supposedly allows imbibers to achieve intoxication while maintaining energy levels that allow them to continue partying long into the night. Those pushing for a ban on AEDs argue that stimulants mask the effects of liquor on drinkers who then continue to consume alcohol putting them at risk for alcohol poisoning, physical harm, and victimization. However, most of the research cited by the anti-AED camp is the product a small number of university studies, wherein participants were surveyed on the internet or upon exiting nightclubs and asked to report on their drinking behavior and its effects. The problem with these surveys, as Baylen Linnekin noted in his paper, is that they do not differentiate between pre-mixed AEDs:

The most widely cited study in the war on AEDs, an Internet-based survey of college students conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University, has nothing to do with pre-mixed AEDs targeted by the FDA’s current action. Instead, the study examined the consumption of any “alcohol mixed with energy drinks.” The study methodology does not mention pre-mixed AEDs in any way, making it impossible to distinguish between pre-mixed drinks and the consumption of cocktails…

Still, the distinction between the known (AEDs) and the unknown (self-mixed energy drink cocktails) seems not to matter to Mary Claire O’Brien, primary author of the Wake Forest study… She told the anti-alcohol Marin Institute in 2008 that she would “like the federal government to immediately ban all alcoholic energy drinks and the adding of caffeine to all alcoholic beverages.” Such a ban would not only eliminate the AED market, it would also threaten a host of venerable traditional cocktails that contain caffeine, including Irish coffee and rum and Coke. [Emphasis added.]

It Says So on the Can:

The fact of the matter is that the alcohol and stimulant contents of Four Loko and other AEDs are printed right on the can for anyone to read. This makes it easier to determine the amount of alcohol one is consuming over time. However, if consumers mix the drinks themselves, they are more likely to imbibe greater amounts of alcohol accidentally. When compared ounce for ounce to the popular cocktail known as a Jägerbomb (a shot of Jägermeister and a can of red bull) the Four Loko actually has less alcohol per ounce.

Jägerbombs per ounce: Alcohol= 35% abv Caffeine = 8.24 milligrams

Four Loko per ounce: Alcohol= 18% abv Caffeine= 5.7 milligrams

For reference, the average domestic beer in the U.S. will be served in a 12-16.5 ounce serving and have between 4 percent and 6 percent abv.

The likelihood of over-consumption of alcohol and caffeine is more likely when the drinks are mixed at home because, unlike the pre-mixed canned drinks, the alcohol content is more difficult to calculate.

Caffeine is Not the Problem:

The issue with Four Loko is not that combining caffeine and alcohol is dangerous, as most anti-AED folks claim. The problem is that a few of the people choosing to drink Four Loko and other pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks are behaving in a manner that is dangerously irresponsible.

While the product is not inherently dangerous, it does contain a large quantity of alcohol per can, about as much as four light beers. However, if a person drinks one can over the course of an hour or two the average person would experience no serious effects beyond mild intoxication. But that is not what we are talking about. A small group of college students are pounding back many cans of Four Loko over a short period of times (less than a couple of hours), knowing that it contains a high amount of alcohol per can.

There is nothing new in this. College students have been hazing and partying for decades. Their irresponsible behavior is no justification for banning a product that the majority of consumers use responsibly.  It is understandable that reporters, parents, and drinkers themselves want to blame their over-consumption and the resulting behavior on the drink itself; It’s easier to blame an uncontrollable outside force than to face the responsibility and consequences of bad decisions.  However, Four Loko and other AEDs are just the latest implement in age-old story of young adults acting dumb, taking risks and screwing up; this year it’s Four Loko, next year it might be water.

For a thorough look at FDA involvement in the alcohol-energy drink market I highly recommend reading Baylen Linnekin’s complete study: Extreme Refreshment Crackdown:
The FDA’s Misguided Campaign Against Alcohol Energy Drinks