Popular alcoholic energy drinks raise debate
At the 7-11 on Jefferson Davis Highway, a block away from campus, a relatively new product has been flying off the shelves on the weekends.
“[Alcoholic energy drinks] are selling like hot cakes,” said 7-11 employee Christina Chewning. “Four Loko watermelon is the most popular.”
Four Loko, introduced in 2008, is just one of many beverages on the market right now that combines caffeine, alcohol, the natural stimulant guarana and taurine, an organic acid used in most energy drinks, that can be found in convenience stores all over the country.
According to the manufacturer, Phusion Projects, one 23.5-ounce can contains “roughly the same amount of caffeine as a tall Starbucks coffee” and 12 percent alcohol by volume, the equivalent of about five beers, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“[The drinks] are heavily marketed to young people. For $2 to $3 you can black out,” said Dr. Thomas Riley, the director of the Student Health Center at UMW.
“Everybody knows they’re bad for you, but I’m going to end up drinking that much in a night anyway,” said senior Rachel Owen. “I should be efficient.”
Recently alcoholic energy drinks have garnered media attention because of their connection to the hospitalizations of numerous undergraduates around the country.
On Oct. 8 at Central Washington University nine students were found unconscious at an off-campus party and in a nearby parking lot. Other students at the party suspected they had been given date rape drugs, but an emergency room toxicology report revealed that the students only had alcohol in their systems, according to a press release on Oct. 25.
Some of the students later admitted to mixing alcoholic energy drinks with beer and liquor, but others were only drinking Four Loko, according to online reports.
A similar incident occurred at Ramapo College in New Jersey not long before, and as a result, many universities have started banning the consumption of these drinks on campus.
Riley explained that the drinks are potentially dangerous because of how caffeine can mask the effects of alcohol on an individual.
People drinking the beverages don’t realize how drunk they are, which can cause them to drink more, reaching potentially fatal levels of intoxication, or lead to risky behavior like operating a vehicle, according to Riley.
In 2009 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began investigating the drinks.
Phusion Projects, along with 30 other alcoholic energy drink manufacturers, was required to explain the rationale for combining alcohol and caffeine and then provide scientific evidence that their products are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), by FDA standards.
Phusion Projects has complied with the FDA, but does not believe Four Loko was the sole cause of recent events.
“Consuming caffeine and alcohol together has been done safely for years,” the company said in a recent press release.
Riley agreed with this, saying the problem with these drinks isn’t a result of chemical make-up, but rather their size.
“Rum and Coke was the original alcoholic energy drink, but you drink them one at a time,” said Riley. “[There is] a fraction of the caffeine and alcohol.”
Even if UMW decided to ban the drinks on campus students could still mix an energy drink with alcohol themselves, Riley pointed out.
Popular arguments like these haven’t prevented lawmakers in many states from attempting to make the beverages illegal.
Michigan, Utah and Oklahoma have already passed statewide bans on alcoholic energy drinks that will go into effect over the next month and legislators in other states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, are attempting to do the same.
“[Banning the drinks] is a knee-jerk reaction […] not an appropriate approach,” said Dr. Raymond Tuttle, Director of Judicial Affairs. “If it’s an alcoholic energy drink today, it could be something we haven’t heard of yet tomorrow.”
Instead, Tuttle emphasized the importance of educating students.
“Students should be informed consumers and understand what it is [they’re drinking] in general,” he said.
Freshman Cori Smith suggested more attention be paid to programs that aid students, like safe rides, rather than focusing on banning what is only a small part of a larger issue.
“There’s never going to be a way to get rid of [alcohol]. They should spend more time stressing that if you’re going to drink, be responsible.[Don’t] waste time trying to prohibit [one type of drink],” Smith said.
This is the manner in which the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) addressed concerns regarding alcoholic energy drinks.
According to an employee at the ABC Public Affairs office in Richmond, the state has been promoting an educational campaign since 2008 to make people aware of alcoholic energy drinks and how they differ from the non-alcoholic variety, as there have been many cases of parents of underage kids mistaking the ones with alcohol for ones without.
The ABC also recently sponsored a Facebook ad campaign that aimed to provide information about various alcoholic energy drinks, targeted at high school and college-aged individuals.
“If [students] do choose to drink, [they should] drink wisely,” said Tuttle, who regularly meets with a committee of students and faculty to discuss different approaches to a variety of issues relating to alcohol on campus.
Junior Megan Martin believes the focus on alcoholic energy drinks should shift to an emphasis on personal responsibility.
“A lot of people do drink them responsibly,” Martin said. “It’s more about being smart when you’re drinking than anything else.”
On Nov. 9 Phusion Projects sent a letter to 300 university presidents expressing concern over recent controversies and pledging its commitment to alcohol education and offering financial support to schools that wish to expand their programs to prevent underage drinking.
“We hope schools will take us up on our offer and that they will understand our sincere commitment to ensuring our products are consumed safely and by of-age consumers only,” said Chris Hunter, one of the founders of Phusion Projects.