Alcohol and energy drinks: too early to make bleary-eyed policy calls

More data on the effects of alcohol and energy drinks is needed to inform policy. loop oh/Flickr

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has called for a ban on the sale of pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks based on recent research, echoing a similar call for bottle shops to stop selling pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks late last year.

There’s been little response from federal or state governments, with the only policy shift coming from the Western Australian government, which has banned the sale of alcohol and energy drink combinations – such as vodka mixed with an energy drink – in licensed venues after midnight.

The most likely reason for this lack in policy shift is the lack of evidence about the nature and extent of the harm caused by these drink combinations.

What we know so far

The AMA’s most recent call is based on a study undertaken by the University of Wollongong, which hasn’t yet published all of its findings.

Interim results show drinking pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks enabled young people to drink for longer and to drink larger amounts. This is dangerous because the combination increases the risk of dehydration.

It also showed combining alcohol and energy drinks poses a risk of drink driving because energy drinks mask the feeling of intoxication and create the false impression of sobriety.

The combination of alcohol and energy drinks is an increasingly popular beverage choice in pubs and nightclubs, as are pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks.

The popularity of the former is reflected internationally, with research in the United States and Europe showing a quarter of university students consumed alcohol with energy drinks within a month of being surveyed.

But the only Australian data, apart from the Wollongong study, is on prevalence estimates from the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS), whose most recent survey found over two-thirds of regular ecstasy users had combined alcohol with energy drinks.

On average, they consumed three energy drinks with alcohol in their last session of use. This is above the daily recommended level of no more than two energy drinks a day per person.

Plugging the information gap

To contribute to this under-researched area, I am about to begin a study on alcohol and energy drinks. My aim is to gather information about patterns and contexts of alcohol and energy drink consumption and its associated risks and harms.

The data gathered will hopefully help inform policy if and when the government does decide to act.

The impetus for this research arose out of earlier work for my doctoral degree for which I used ethnographic methods. This involved, among other things, extended sessions of participant observation.

I looked at the social and cultural contexts of alcohol and “party drug” use, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, among young people in Melbourne.

An incidental finding of this research was that young people increasingly combine alcohol with energy drinks in the same way that they combine alcohol with methamphetamine.

Their intention was to increase energy and alertness late in the evening, after they’d been drinking for a number of hours and were beginning to feel tired or impaired by drunkenness.

Some participants said that after having only two alcohol and energy drink mixers, their sleep was significantly disturbed and they felt unwell the next day.

They also noticed physiological effects, such as heart palpitations and psychological effects, such as anxiety.

However, these effects may be isolated or individual as there is no body of data supporting the claims.

Gathering data for evidence-based measures

The aim of this new research is to help build up a local evidence base around alcohol and energy drink consumption so we can identify harms and make informed responses about reducing them.

For example, if we find the extent of the harms from combining alcohol and energy drinks, the information we gather could be used to design realistic education or media campaigns around these harms.

It might also allow us to develop recommendations around maximum amounts of alcohol and energy drinks that can be consumed daily, or to develop warning labels for pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks and information posters for licensed venues.

These recommendations could be used by state and federal governments to make informed decisions around the sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol and energy drink combinations.

While it may be the case that these drinks are harmful, policy should be based on evidence of harm so it can be informed and targeted. Ill-informed blanket bans will likely cause an outcry, potentially leading to non-compliance or the development of a black market.

It may also lead to the production of alternative sources of caffeine and/or stimulant products by the alcohol industry or lead to consumers switching to other stimulants which are even less safe.

Let us be clear about the evidence and the implications for consumers and regulators before we make any decisions about policy. More Australian research than the two solitary studies that have been conducted in this area are needed.

Do you think we need an evidence base before we start to make policy about the consumption of alcohol and energy drinks?

Leave your comments below.