Safety of Caffeinated Alcohol Drinks Is Under Federal Spotlight

FDA investigates brands like Joose, Four Loko, and Liquid Charge that are popular with teen drinkers.

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Alcoholic drinks laced with caffeine are increasingly popular on college campuses and among underage teen drinkers, probably because the caffeine in brands like Four Loko, Joose, and Liquid Charge makes it possible to stay awake and keep on partying without having to stop to mix a Red Bull and vodka.

But law enforcement types such as state attorneys general have been pushing to get jazzed-up malt liquors and vodkas banned, arguing that these drinks are dangerous and are often marketed to the under-21 crowd.

It looks like the Food and Drug Administration thinks caffeinated alcohol drinks are a bad idea, too. FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein announced today that the agency is investigating the safety and legality of mixing caffeine and alcohol in a single product. He told 30 manufacturers of juiced hooch that they have 30 days to explain why they think these products are safe. The scarcely veiled threat is that the FDA can ban caffeinated alcoholic drinks under existing law that bars dangerous food additives. Or it could require manufacturers to reveal how much caffeine is in each drink. My bet is that they’ll go for an outright ban.

Responding to pressure from the state attorneys general, big brewers Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors agreed last year to yank caffeine, guarana, and other additives marketed as performance-enhancers from their brews. But smaller companies have filled the gaps left by the decaffeination of Sparks and the demise of Bud Extra, which was marketed with the line: “Who’s up for staying out all night?”

Drinkers have been trying to sober up with caffeine for eons, of course, but science has shown that strategy fails: An awake drunk is just as dangerous and stupid as a drowsy drunk. Mark Fillmore, a researcher at the University of Kentucky, found that students who drank caffeine along with alcohol rapidly recovered their ability to respond quickly, but they still made as many errors as decaf drunks. And researchers at Wake Forest University found that students who mix caffeine and alcohol were more likely to get injured, to get in a car with a drunk driver, or to be involved in nonconsensual sex.

Caffeine and alcohol are a dangerous combination, particularly for teenagers and college students who don’t need any extra help to stay up late and drink more. Stimulants, be it caffeine in the form of energy drinks or anti-ADHD drugs such as Adderal and Ritalin, are wildly popular with teenagers as studying and partying aids. In recent years, manufacturers have rushed to caffeinate youth-friendly products ranging from potato chips to lip gloss. But legal stimulants are not totally benign, a topic I explored in depth in this feature article on kids and stimulants. Banning caffeine from alcoholic beverages, where it’s not only unnecessary but could be harmful, would be a logical first step towards ratcheting back the pursuit of the almighty buzz.

The comic strip Zits riffed on teenager’s fondness for energy drinks yesterday: “Just how many of these energy drinks have you had today?” the mom asks her teenage son. She asks because Jeremy told her that when he grows up he wants to be a cowboy, a fireman, a cop, a motorcycle racer, and a rock star—all at once. Give that kid a glass of milk, Mom! And please make sure he knows that caffeine doesn’t make alcohol any less dangerous.