A dangerous mix

Energy drinks and alcohol: A dangerous mix

Slick marketers appear to have found a lucrative gold mine peddling energy drinks to vulnerable teens and college students who are all too eager to believe their hype. "Tired is in your head. Wake up your brain and your body will follow," they tell the young people and other users who spend billions each year on these highly caffeinated-and potentially dangerous-drinks.

These products are packaged in sleek cans with edgy graphics designed specifically to appeal to young people. Names like "AMP Overdrive," "Burn," "Speed Freak," and "Wired," to name just a few, make no pretense about the intention to market these beverages to consumers looking for a liquid lift.

Some manufacturers are so bold as to lure people further by applying drug-related names to their beverages like "Cocaine." Although the Food and Drug Administration successfully halted the sales of the Cocaine drink in June, another product called "Blow"-a white powder that is mixed into beverages-quickly emerged to take its place.

In addition to high amounts of caffeine, which range from about 80 milligrams (the equivalent of a cup of coffee) to 200 milligrams, the energy drinks usually contain other stimulants such as ephedrine, guarana, and ginseng. Taurine, an amino acid that the body produces naturally, is also added, but according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), not much is known about how it works or how much is too much.

The main worry, however, is caffeine, which speeds up the central nervous system-the main processing center that controls the body’s organs and systems. Experts caution that caffeine is a drug-a stimulant upon which people can grow dependent and that can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches, mood swings, and poor concentration when they attempt to stop using it. High levels of caffeine can dehydrate your body, speed up your heart, and raise your blood pressure, making energy drinks especially unsafe. It is important not to confuse energy drinks with sports drinks that are designed to help athletes rehydrate and replenish electrolytes and carbohydrates.

Of particular concern is the dangerous popularity of mixing energy drinks with alcohol. "The stimulation from a caffeine-heavy energy drink can make a person feel less intoxicated than he or she really is," warns SAMHSA. "As a result, the person may keep drinking or take a risk such as driving without realizing the danger. In addition, because caffeine dehydrates the body, alcohol becomes harder to absorb, which makes its toxic effects much more damaging to the body."

Fatigue is one way the body signals you’ve had enough to drink, so stimulants can fool you into thinking you aren’t drunk or not as intoxicated as you really are. But no matter how alert you feel, your blood alcohol concentration is the same.

Despite these risks, some beverage manufacturers saw a profitable opportunity in the practice of mixing energy drinks with alcohol and began producing flavored malt beverages that contain 12 percent alcohol by volume in addition to the ingredients of energy drinks. Here again, creative marketers came up with brands designed to entice young people. One called "Spykes" drew the attention and ire of a group of 29 attorneys general.

In a May letter to Spykes’ manufacturer, Anheuser-Busch, the AGs criticized the company for promoting what they termed a "youth-oriented starter drink" on their Web site by offering free ringtones and wallpaper downloads for computers that appeal to adolescents. Spykes attracted underage drinkers because of its fruit and chocolate flavors and its two-ounce cans designed to be mixed with beer and other drinks, or taken as a shot. Although they denied their product was intended for anyone under 21 years, Anheuser-Busch announced that it would discontinue production of Spykes just a week after the AG letter.

A report released in August by the Marin Institute said that the alcohol industry is irresponsibly marketing alcoholic energy drinks to youth. It calls upon the alcohol industry to cease selling these products and recommends that the federal government investigate potentially deceptive marketing aimed at youth.

For more on this topic, visit SAMHSA online at http://family.samhsa.gov/monitor/energydrinks.aspx.

Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. It is provided by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services on addiction and recovery. For more resources check its Web site at www.hazelden.org

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