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Think alcohol and energy drinks are nothing to worry about? Think again

Heavy drinkers are mixing alcohol with energy drinks to enable them to drink longer and get more drunk. While the trend is concerning many public health researchers – because the risks remain unknown – others…

Drinkers who consume energy drinks record higher breath alcohol concentrations than those who don’t. Flickr/thewhitestdogalive

Heavy drinkers are mixing alcohol with energy drinks to enable them to drink longer and get more drunk. While the trend is concerning many public health researchers – because the risks remain unknown – others are attempting to allay these fears, claiming there’s nothing to worry about.

Late on Friday and Saturday nights (or, more accurately, early on Saturday and Sunday mornings), around 40% of people on Australian city streets are heavily intoxicated, with breath alcohol concentrations (BAC) greater than 0.087. Nearly a quarter of these drinkers have consumed more than two energy drinks.

We don’t have reliable data on use in other countries but use abroad is high. Around three-quarters of college students in the United States and 85% of Italian students report consuming alcohol energy drinks in the past month.

Our research, and that of others around the world, has shown that drinkers who consume energy drinks record higher breath alcohol concentrations than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to report engaging in aggressive acts; being injured; having driven while drunk or been the passenger of a drunk driver; and having taken sexual advantage of, or been taken advantage of by, another person.

But these studies don’t tell whether the energy drinks are the culprit, whether people who are more likely to engage in these behaviours are more likely to use energy drinks, or perhaps most likely, some combination of the two.

Normally, experimental research is able to give us some answers. But ethics committees are extremely reluctant to allow researchers to reproduce in the laboratory the levels of alcohol intoxication and energy drink use we see on our streets.

Therefore, much of the laboratory research has, for ethical reasons, been confined to studying the effects of combining lower-levels of alcohol intoxication (BAC under 0.08) with a single energy drink. These doses equate to a coffee and a few beers, far below the levels of consumption that raise public health concerns.

Some of the researchers doing these studies have argued that we shouldn’t be concerned about the risks of combining alcohol and energy drinks. Many of those who draw this reassuring conclusion have been funded by one of the major energy drink producers, Red Bull.

The industry-friendly conclusions from the laboratory studies are undeniably correct about alcohol energy drinks when consumption is limited to a single energy drink and alcohol use has been limited that defined as still safe to drive. But for researchers interested in night-time violence, studies which look at people under 0.08 are largely irrelevant.

Around 40% of people on Australian city streets at 4am have a BAC greater than .087. Plashing Vole

So it’s concerning when these researchers claim we don’t need to do any more research on this topic when they simply haven’t investigated the levels of alcohol and energy drink consumption at which trouble is likely to occur.

It’s especially worrisome that four out of five talks at special conference sessions on this topic have been made by industry-funded researchers. The same speakers have been funded to attend conferences around the world by a company with financial interest in the research outcomes. The frequent failure to disclose this fact raises questions about the use of research findings as image management.

There are two core issues of public health concern which need be investigated. First, is there an interaction between alcohol and energy drink consumption at higher levels of intoxication, as seen on our streets – for example, when people have had 10 drinks or have a BAC greater than .10?

And second, is there an interaction between a given level of alcohol use and the effects of higher levels of energy drink use – for example, between two and three standard cans?

Until we know the answers to these questions we shouldn’t be misleadingly reassured by laboratory studies which purport to show that energy drinks have no effects on intoxication.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    "Heavy drinkers are mixing alcohol with energy drinks to enable them to drink longer and get more drunk."
    You're a bit behind the times. In 2013, they use meth.

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    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Peter Miller

      Anybody who is putting meth/speed/blow even within a bull's roar of 'energy drinks' clearly needs to get a different meth/speed/blow dealer.

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  2. Lynne Newington
    Lynne Newington is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Researcher

    Thank goodness for the support of the school my youngest child attended, admittedly the headmaster [classed as an old fogey by many] had no control over students once they left the premises, but he certainly involved parents by warning them of the adverse affects on their childrens study patterns and health concerns, irrespective if they set the example or not.

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  3. rory robertson
    rory robertson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    former fattie

    Good morning Peter and Wayne,

    You write that "There are two core issues of public health concern which need be investigated. First, is there an interaction between alcohol and energy drink consumption at higher levels of intoxication...And second, is there an interaction between a given level of alcohol use and the effects of higher levels of energy drink use...".

    I will give you those two, but there is a third public-health concern that is even more important, in my opinion. That is, "energy…

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    1. Peter Miller

      Principal Research Fellow at Deakin University

      In reply to rory robertson

      Rory, I agree this is a huge issue. Given most energy drinks contain around 10-12 sugars per small can, there are very, very real consequences for nutrition. Even beyond this is the mythology and misuse based on marketing and perceptions that these drinks 'give you energy' and are not harmful. We are starting to look at use in school kids and the early data and stories border on frightening. Hopefully, we can get better information across the issue, free of industry interference, and then, maybe, get our legislators to act appropriately.

      Thanks for your interest

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  4. Jason Mazanov

    Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

    Thank you for a timely piece. As the drugs in sport hyperbole starts winding up again following the emphatic underlining of the Essendon issue, this piece points to far more important drugs-related issues facing Australian society. While tobacco remains a core public health issue, my greatest anxieties arise from caffeine. When it is combined with the most dangerous drug in Australian society, alcohol, it should be receiving the same sort of attention given to doping at the elite level of sport. This issue certainly has more potential to harm more Australians than supplement misuse of the privileged few.

    Best wishes,

    Jason

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    1. Peter Miller

      Principal Research Fellow at Deakin University

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      Great point Jason. We plan to investigate use in sporting clubs next year, but our evidence from other surveys, and the many deaths reported around the world of sportspeople who have used energy drinks before exercise suggest we need a lot more research, and dare I say, some legislators with courage?

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    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      "While tobacco remains a core public health issue, my greatest anxieties arise from caffeine."
      Oh good lord, if only Nicola Roxon had met you sooner. Imagine how much tax she could have raised!

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