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Survey at local colleges: Mixing energy drinks, alcohol popular

Posted by Roy Greene  May 19, 2011 11:00 AM

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(AFP photo)


Pre-mixed caffeinated alcoholic beverages, such as Four Loko, are popular among college students.

This story was reported by Globe correspondents Jake Rozin, Hanna Trudo, Anna Westendorf, Jennifer Gorden, Alexandra Siegel, Laura Finaldi, and Lauryn Paiva. It was written by Lisa Chedekel.

More than 57 percent of students surveyed at four Boston universities report having consumed caffeinated beverages mixed with alcohol in 2011, despite warnings against the practice, according to an informal poll.

Also, at least 109 of the 265 students surveyed – or 41 percent -- reported believing that the addition of caffeine to alcohol made them feel more awake, leading some to drink more than they otherwise might.

Globe correspondents surveyed students at the four universities about their consumption of pre-mixed caffeinated alcoholic beverages, such as Four Loko, or their own mixing of alcohol and energy drinks. The FDA has warned that the addition of caffeine to alcohol can mask intoxication signs, and studies have found that the perception among some drinkers that caffeine will blunt the effects of alcohol is unfounded.

Anonymous surveys were completed by students at Boston University, Northeastern University, Suffolk University and Simmons College. Sixty-eight percent of the respondents were female.

The survey is not representative of all Boston college students because participants were selected through an informal sampling.

Of the respondents, 34 percent reported consuming pre-mixed drinks in the past four months, while 49 percent reported mixing caffeinated beverages with alcohol on their own. Some did both.

Of those who consumed the pre-mixed drinks, about one-third said they believed the addition of caffeine diminished or blunted the effects of alcohol. Of those who consumed either the pre-mixed or self-mixed drinks, 26 percent said they drank more as a result of mixing the two substances.

While many of the survey respondents said they drank the mixture for taste reasons – either because it tasted good, or because energy drinks masked the taste of alcohol – others reported believing that the mixture gave them the stamina to stay up and party longer.

“I thought mixing energy drinks with alcohol would keep me more alert by negating the drowsy effects of alcohol,” said a 23-year-old female Northeastern University student, who responded to the anonymous survey.

“Gives me energy while drinking, which normally puts me to sleep,” responded a 23-year-old female student at Simmons College.

“To be awake after a long week of studying so you aren’t anti-social,” said a 19-year-old female student at Boston University.

The consumption of energy drinks and alcohol, especially among college students, has been an issue of concern in the last two years. The FDA in 2009 warned the manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages of concerns about the increasing popularity of the mixed drinks, saying the agency planned to examine potential “health and safety issues.”

Last November, the FDA issued warning letters to four makers of the mixed beverages, citing concerns that caffeine could “mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication.” The day before the FDA issued its warning, the makers of the popular Four Loko brand announced that they were removing caffeine from their beverages.

The FDA’s action prompted a number of states to ban any kind of alcoholic drinks that contain caffeine. The Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission acted quickly to ban the drinks after concerns were raised about Four Loko, which college students had dubbed “blackout in a can’’ and which had been linked with several deaths in 2010.

States including Utah, New York, and Washington took similar steps, as did some colleges. Some communities and universities also have developed educational strategies to alert consumers to the risks of mixing alcohol with energy drinks.

Researchers have said that energy-drink advertising portrays the drinks as a way to heighten one’s energy and alertness when consuming them with alcohol. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that those who mix alcohol with energy drinks are three times more likely to binge drink.

A recent study led by researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health and Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies found that the addition of caffeine to alcohol -- mixing Red Bull with vodka, for example -- had no effect on enhancing performance on a driving test or improving sustained attention or reaction times.

"There appears to be little or no protective benefit from the addition of caffeine to alcohol, with respect to the safe execution of activities that require sustained attention with rapid, accurate decisions," said the study, published in the February edition of the journal Addiction.

Jonathan Howland, a professor of community health sciences at the BU School of Public Health who has researched the effects of caffeinated alcohol, said the Globe’s survey findings were not surprising.

“Although several manufacturers of caffeinated beer have withdrawn their products from the market, there is no sign that young people have decreased the practice of combining alcohol and energy drinks,” Howland said. He said the effects of the mixtures on risk behavior warrant further study.

“Critically, [the drinks] may increase alcohol-related risks in a number of different domains, but have been subject to very little systematic research," he said.

He noted that at present, it is unclear whether the added-caffeine beverages cause risk-taking behavior, or whether young adults with a propensity for risk prefer the mixes to non-caffeinated alcohol.

Of those who responded to the Globe survey, most reported consuming the self-mixed beverages in private settings, rather than bars.

Of the 265 students, 69 were from BU; 74 were from Northeastern; 57 were from Simmons; and 65 were from Suffolk.

Some of those who said they had not tried the mixed beverages indicated an awareness of the possible dangers.

“Never have, never will!” wrote one 23-year-old female Northeastern student. “My low tolerance for both alcohol and caffeine is reason enough to avoid the combination. I’d also like to avoid the possibility of a blackout and a cardiac arrest happening in the same night.”

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism students, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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