Showing the Dangers of Energy Drinks

When energy drinks became common on college campuses in the mid-2000s, little was known about the effects of drinking them, especially because so many students mixed the drinks with alcohol.

The earliest research and warnings about the drinks came from a team of researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine led by Mary Claire O’Brien, MD.

Dangers Discovered

Tellingly, a poster the team produced based on the research was titled “Caffeinated Cocktails: Get Wired, Get Drunk, Get Injured.” It didn’t take much to learn from a study of nearly 700 students that consumption of alcohol mixed with energy drinks resulted in more incidents of heavy drinking, weekly drunkenness and “significantly higher prevalence of alcohol-related consequences.” Among the consequences were driving drunk, riding in a car with someone driving drunk or being taken advantage of sexually.

Despite those early warnings, some of the country’s largest beverage makers would soon begin to sell alcoholic energy drinks in colorful packaging and with clever names such as Four Loco. By 2010, numerous incidents had been reported nationally of college students overdosing on such drinks, and many schools began to ban their use and sale on campus. O’Brien was quoted in many national publications and appeared on numerous media outlets as one of the country’s leading experts on the danger of the drinks.

“Manufactured alcoholic energy drinks are dangerous, and because they are cheap, they attract young drinkers,” said O’Brien, an associate professor of emergency medicine and public health sciences. “Caffeine has the ability to mask the effects of alcohol; it impairs the ability of the drinker to tell that they are drunk. The caffeine permits the drinker to be stimulated and stay awake in order to drink more—well beyond the amount they would otherwise be able to tolerate if they were only drinking alcohol. But an awake drunk is still drunk.”

Alcoholic Energy Drinks Outlawed

The addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks had never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and with a group of state attorney generals pushing the issue, the FDA acted in November 2010, warning the makers to stop selling the products. The alcohol energy drinks were typically reformulated to remove caffeine, ginkgo and other products.

O’Brien’s work, however, continues to this day because energy drinks remain popular to mix with alcoholic drinks, especially among college students. She has pursued a platform of steps to protect public health, such as labels on the energy drinks warning of the dangers of mixing them with alcohol and pushing for regulatory agencies to require the disclosure of caffeine content on product labels.