By BRIAN HAWKINS
Though banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week, alcoholic energy drinks have been a problem for local law enforcement officers for awhile.
The FDA on Wednesday issued warnings to four makers of the energy drinks — including those of popular brands Four Loko and Joose — stating that the level of caffeine in the beverages is considered an unsafe food additive and creates a public health concern.
The amount of caffeine in the drinks masks the effects of the alcohol consumed, the FDA stated, giving the manufacturers 15 days to explain how to defend the drinks as safe or risk having them removed from the market. The Federal Trade Commission joined the FDA in condemning the drinks, warning that the marketing and sale of them may be considered a deceptive practice.
But for Starkville police and other local law enforcement agencies, the drinks are not a new problem.
Though the specific brands with alcohol are fairly new, many local bar patrons — including Mississippi State students — have been combining energy drinks such as Red Bull with vodka and other liquors for a few years, officials say.
“The mixing of Red Bull and vodka has been around for years,” said Starkville Police Department Chief David Lindley.
“Whether its Red Bull being used in a mixed drink or it’s an alcoholic energy drink in a can, the caffeine in them allows the consumer to believe they are at as affected by the alcohol as they really are In effect, what you have is a wide-awake drunk,” Lindley said.
The alcoholic energy drinks, when being manufactured, see caffeine and other stimulants like guarana added and packaged in 23.5-ounce cans resembling regular energy drinks with flavors like fruit punch, lemonade and watermelon.
Depending on regulations in specific states, however, the energy drinks with alcohol may contain the alcoholic equivalent of five to six beers and the caffeine equivalent of four or five 12-ounce soft drinks in one can.
In Mississippi, the legal alcohol content in one can of such an energy drink is only 6 percent, but the actions of the FDA and FTC still apply in full force, said Attorney General Jim Hood in a statement late Wednesday applauding the federal agencies’ move.
“By trading on the popularity of non-alcoholic energy drinks, alcoholic energy drinks attract young people who wrongly believe that the caffeine will offset the intoxicating effects of the alcohol,” said Hood.
“These beliefs are fueled by aggressive youth-targeted marketing campaigns on social networking websites and college campuses that promote excessive drinking and enhanced abilities.”
Hood’s statement rings true with police officers.
SPD Sgt. Landon Stamps, who previously served as one of the city’s DUI enforcement officers, recalled an incident in which he had encountered a drunk underage college student and watched her try to hide a can of an alcoholic energy drink as she got of the car.
“She set it down by the tire of the vehicle and looked as if she didn’t know it was there,” Stamps said. “She later said the reason she had been drinking it was because it looked like an energy drink more than a beer and thought she could pull that off.”
But when the “buzz” from the caffeine and other stimulants in the alcoholic energy drinks wear off, the real problems begin for the drinker, Lindley said.
“When the caffeine is eliminated from the body quicker than the alcohol, it brings about a blackout effect. The individual passes out from the amount of alcohol in his or her system,” Lindley said. “That’s when there can be real danger.”
Hood says reports of problems from the consumption of alcoholic energy drinks among young adults and teenagers have increasd.
“Unfortunately, with increased consumption of these beverages among teens and college students, reports of alcohol poisoning, serious injury — including sexual assault — and hospitalizations have become all too common,” Hood said. “Over the past few months we have heard reports of teens or college students serious injuring themselves or others after consuming alcoholic energy drinks.”
Previous efforts by state attorneys general around the nation resulted in two leading manufacturers — Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors Brewing Co. — agreeing to cease making caffeinated alcoholic beverages completely in 2008.