Energy drinks consumed by youths are getting a lot of press these days for good reason. As a psychiatrist that treats teenage alcoholism and teenage drug abuse, I think that companies targeting youth for consuming their energy drinks are taking advantage of teen’s impulsive behavior and are increasing their risk for developing teenage alcoholism. The teen slang for energy drinks includes “liquid cocaine”, “black-out in a can”, and “coke in a can”.
Some of these products mixed alcohol with high doses of caffeine. One 24-ounce can of one of these drinks contained up to 12% alcohol; triple the amount of alcohol in a 12 ounce light beer combined with the equivalent caffeine of several very strong coffee drinks.
Energy drink consumption has been associated with a number of teen deaths. Some of the deaths from drinking this type of drink included deaths from car accidents (tragic example of underage drinking and driving) and one accidental shooting incident.
Energy drinks have also been associated with multiple cases of alcohol poisoning. In one particular incident, police found multiple teens passed out after a party and had to rush them to a local hospital for treatment.
The stimulant effect of caffeine masks a teen’s perception of how drunk they really are. Therefore, the risk is even greater for underage drinking and driving as well as staying awake even later and drinking even more alcohol. Also, since teenage binge drinking is how these drinks are consumed, alcohol poisoning is a real risk.
With the threat of the Food and Drug Administration banning one of these types of products from store shelves, the company took the steps to remove the stimulant ingredients from the drink including caffeine, guarana, and taurine. However, this isn’t good enough and here is why.
One of my patients, A.T. who is 15 years old, went to a party and chugged 4 of these canned drinks and drank a lot of vodka. She ended up with alcohol poisoning and luckily survived. The trend of mixing energy drinks with alcohol is very common with teenage alcoholism. How much is this combination contributing to this disease?
In a recent research study of 1097 college students, there was a significant association between frequent consumption of energy drinks and developing alcohol dependence. This finding held up independent of race, genetics for alcoholism, socioeconomic status, depression, or a history of conduct disorder. Also, the earlier the higher consumption of energy drinks, the earlier the age of getting drunk and the more alcohol consumed in the last year.
Teenage binge drinking and college-age binge drinking is the way these age groups consume alcohol. The energy drink companies market to these age groups by packaging their drinks in brightly colored cans which is effective in attracting young people to buy it. Because the original formula for the energy drink that mixed alcohol and caffeine together is not available in stores anymore, teens take it upon themselves to chug energy drinks that contain huge doses of caffeine and combine it with chugging alcohol; a potentially deadly combination.
The main risks of energy drinks with alcohol is the increased risk of underage drinking and driving, alcohol poisoning, teenage pregnancy, or developing teenage alcoholism. In addition, the long-term effects of high doses of caffeine on the developing brain is unknown. Mixing caffeine, which is a stimulant with alcohol, which is a central nervous system depressant (calms the brain), masks how drunk a person really is which leads to even “poorer decisions” than if the person had been drinking alcohol alone.