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Caffeine and Alcohol: A New Fad With a Bad Buzz

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Red Bull, Rock Star, Jolt, Monster, Amp -- heard of these beverages? As the summer sun blazes, and late night parties abound, there are a lot of sleepy folks out there reaching for energy boosting drinks to get through the day. And if that was not enough caffeine for you, when it's time to hit the bar scene, move over Carrie Bradshaw and the girlie Cosmo -- the beverage of choice at local hot spots is blending high caffeinated drinks like Red Bull with vodka. The common belief is that "You can dance all night on Red Bull cocktails."

Red bull is a heavily caffeinated energy drink spiked with additional stimulants, and when mixed with vodka or other liquor, it can diminish the awareness of drowsiness, feelings of un-coordination and intoxication. However, studies show the added caffeine only makes you think you are more in control. A new breed of high caffeine and high alcohol drinks are now on the market, like Joose and Four Loko, with double the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, and double the amount of alcohol as a beer. The drinks are currently being outlawed in Europe for kids under 12. There is no legal age limit to purchasing energy drinks, and about 30 percen of 12- to 17-year-olds admit to regular use.

This week, New York Sen. Charles Schumer is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing of flavored alcoholic beverages with caffeine that appear to be explicitly designed to attract underage drinkers. In a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Senator Schumer said that the colorful cans of new drinks like Joose are designed to befuddle parents and police with labels that resemble nonalcoholic energy drinks, and use very small print to disclose alcohol content of up to 12 percent.

Researchers in Brazil examined the motor skills performance of people who had drank an equivalent amount of alcohol, but half had drank it with red bull mixers, and the other half with non stimulant mixers. The group that drank the red bull cocktails self-reported feeling less drunk on a number of measures than the non red bull drinking group, but when tested on motor skills performance, and other quantitative measures of intoxication, performed equally badly.

Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration notified more than two dozen manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it has never specifically approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and began studying whether it is unsafe and should be outlawed. The agency noted the mix's growing popularity among up to 26 percent of college students and its potential health and safety issues. They included a Wake Forest University study that students who combine caffeine and alcohol are likelier to suffer alcohol-related injuries than those drinking alcohol without caffeine.

Dr. Yifrah Kaminer, Professor of Psychiatry & Pediatrics, and researcher at the Alcohol Research Center (ARC) at the University of Connecticut said:

"To appeal to adolescents and young adults, many energy drinks carry names that have clear marketing reference to psychoactive drug use such as Cocaine and Blow, whereas others have names that glamorize antisocietal behavior like Pimp Juice and Venom. These beverages have been marketed as legal alternatives to gain status as cool beverages."

While some of this is not new, the rate has been rising. Approximately a quarter of college students reported mixing high-caffeinated drinks with alcohol during the last month. A majority of students studied listed the main reasons for drinking high energy drinks and mixing them with alcohol include coping with insufficient sleep, increasing energy, and increasing fun with alcohol at parties. Regular consumers of high energy drinks tend to consume alcohol more frequently than nonusers.

These students got drunk twice as often as those who consumed alcohol only and were far more likely to be injured, require medical treatment, or ride with an intoxicated driver. Among college students drinking high caffeinated drinks, weekly jolt and crash episodes were experienced by 29 percent, headaches by 22 percent, and heart palpitations by 19 percent. The combination of fluid loss from sweating and the diuretic properties of caffeine can also lead to dehydration, particularly among athletes and party goers.

What is all this about? The use of caffeinated drinks in general has soared in the past five years. In 2008, annual sales of high caffeine energy drinks accounted for $3.2 billion in the United States and $7.8 billion worldwide.

Caffeine is best known for its "wake-up," effect. Consuming 600 milligrams (about six cups of coffee) or more daily, can cause nervousness, sweating, tenseness, upset stomach, anxiety and insomnia. It can also prevent clear thinking and increase the side effects of certain medications, and represents a significant health risk. Caffeine can be mildly addictive. Even when moderate amounts of caffeine are withdrawn for 18 to 24 hours, symptoms such as headache, fatigue, irritability, depression and poor concentration are common.

It is a slippery slope. Many youth today think they need caffeine to stay awake in school, need alcohol to wind down and now need both to stay awake while relaxing with friends. Most adults are the same. Have we lost our ability to rely on our inner rhythms of life? What the matter with being a "clean machine" role model for kids and college students? Let's start a conversation about this subject. Should youth be allowed to drink massive amounts of caffeine, and is it safe to drink high-dose energy drinks and alcohol? Love to hear your thoughts and comments below.

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