When Science Becomes Propaganda: The Caffeine & Alcohol Conundrum

Ugh. To me there’s nothing worse than junk science, especially when it’s in the service of an agenda. And that’s how this latest “study” in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research comes across. The title of the “study” is Effects of Energy Drinks Mixed with Alcohol on Behavioral Control: Risks for College Students Consuming Trendy Cocktails and was conducted at the Universities of Northern Kentucky and the Maryland School of Public Health. Here’s how the press release for the study explains it:

  • A new laboratory study compares the effects of alcohol alone versus alcohol mixed with an energy drink on a cognitive task, as well as participants’ reports of feelings of intoxication.
  • Results show that energy drinks can enhance the feeling of stimulation that occurs when drinking alcohol.
  • However, energy drinks did not alter the level of behavioral impairment when drinking alcohol, particularly for impaired impulse control.
  • The combination of impaired impulse control and enhanced stimulation may make energy drinks combined with alcohol riskier than alcohol alone.

Energy drinks mixed with alcohol, such as Red Bull™ and vodka, have become trendy. While this consumption has been implicated in risky drinking practices and associated accidents and injuries, there is little laboratory research on how the effects of this combination differ from those of drinking alcohol alone. A recent laboratory study, comparing measures of intoxication due to alcohol alone versus alcohol/energy drink, has found that the combination of the energy drink enhanced feelings of stimulation in participants. However, the energy drink did not change the level of impairment for impulsive behavior. These findings suggest that energy drinks combined with alcohol may increase the risks associated with drinking.

But take a closer look at what that says. The caffeine stimulates. Well, duh. That’s what caffeine does. Did anybody doubt that? Then the study goes on to say that “energy drinks did not alter the level of behavioral impairment when drinking alcohol,” meaning it didn’t make people more drunk. Then they conclude combining caffeine and alcohol “may increase the risks associated with drinking [my emphasis].”

Here’s how they conducted it:

Marczinski [lead author] and her colleagues randomly assigned 56 college student participants (28 men, 28 women), between the ages of 21 and 33, to one of four groups that received four different doses: 0.65 g/kg alcohol, 3.57 ml/kg energy drink, energy drink/alcohol, or a placebo beverage. The participants’ behavior was measured on a task that measures how quickly one can execute and suppress actions following the dose. Participants also rated how they felt, including feelings of stimulation, sedation, impairment, and levels of intoxication.

“We found that an energy drink alters the reaction to alcohol that a drinker experiences when compared to a drinker that consumed alcohol alone,” said Marczinski. “A consumer of alcohol, with or without the energy drink, acts impulsively compared to when they had not consumed alcohol. However, the consumer of the alcohol/energy drink felt more stimulated compared to an alcohol-alone consumer. Therefore, consumption of an energy drink combined with alcohol sets up a risky scenario for the drinker due to this enhanced feeling of stimulation and high impulsivity levels.”

“To reiterate,” said Arria, “the investigators found that the presence of an energy drink did not change the level of impairment associated with alcohol consumption.” It did, however, change the perception of impairment.

“The findings from this study provide concrete laboratory evidence that the mixture of energy drinks with alcohol is riskier than alcohol alone,” said Marczinski. “College students need to be aware of the risks of these beverages. Moreover, clinicians who are working with risky drinkers will need to try and steer their clients away from these beverages.”

But that’s hardly “concrete” as she characterizes it. In fact, it’s the very opposite of concrete. It didn’t change impairment, just how people felt about it, how they perceived it. From that “insight” they concluded that since being stimulated “sets up a risky scenario for the drinker” that therefore the risk is greater. And they recommend that people should “be aware of the risks.” So far, so good. But if you didn’t realize drinking coffee after alcohol would stimulate you, perhaps you shouldn’t be in college after all. Maybe it’s time to lower your sights if that obvious bit of wisdom eluded you. I hear McDonald’s is hiring.

When Marczinski states that “[y]oung people are now drinking alcohol in different ways than they have in the past” I have to wonder what her evidence is for that nonsense. People have been mixing caffeine and alcohol for as long as the two have been around, I’d wager. This is one of those generational things, where the older one always believes the younger generation is worse than they were. The only difference between when I was a kid and now, at least regarding caffeine and alcohol, is that you don’t have to go to the trouble of mixing it yourself.

And I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’m not a fan of alcopops or alcoholic drinks with caffeine added (that is not naturally occurring like many coffee stouts, for example). But for me, that’s not the issue. The issue is society going out of its mind over a perceived problem for which there is only anecdotal evidence that there even is a problem. And this study seems like more of the same. I don’t like these drinks, don’t drink them myself, but I don’t think they should be banned just because some people don’t like them. There are obviously adults who bought them, and want to continue buying them, and they shouldn’t be removed from shelves just so that kids can’t buy them. Kids are already prohibited from buying them. If kids can still get them, that’s an entirely different problem. Kids can’t own guns either, but I don’t see any movement to ban all guns so that we can keep them out of the hands of children. That’s just not how a society should function. We shouldn’t make the world safe for our children by only allowing kid friendly products to be in it.

In the end, this “study” is hardly the hard evidence that the caffeine and alcohol conundrum has now been solved and they’ve found the data to close the book on this scourge. Even its authors know as much, as they use qualifying words all over the place. Their hesitation is right there in the title of the press release, which is “Drinking energy beverages mixed with alcohol may be riskier than drinking alcohol alone.” [my emphasis.] Up front, it tells you this is not as conclusive as you might otherwise think because they admit that a greater risk is simply possible. Beyond using an almost laughable 56 test subjects, the study simply jumps to anecdotal conclusions that are not supported by what passes for hard data. There really isn’t any hard data beyond people’s feelings after having consumed alcohol and then alcohol with caffeine and the authors then concluding those feelings might turn into actions that were riskier.

But even as honestly as the study states that their “findings suggest that energy drinks combined with alcohol may increase the risks associated with drinking,” naturally that’s not how it’s being reported. Every headline has essentially removed the qualifying “might” and made it sound far scarier and more conclusive than it really is. Here’s just a few examples.

Combining Energy Drinks with Alcohol More Dangerous Than Drinking Alcohol Alone at Partnership for a Drug Free America and as linked to a Join Together e-mail blast. And that report begins by stating that “A new study finds that consuming a caffeine-infused energy drink combined with alcohol is more dangerous than drinking alcohol alone.” But that’s not what the study concluded at all.

Likewise, HealthDay’s headline was Alcohol-Energy Drink Combo Riskier Than Booze Alone, Study Says, MedPage states Alcohol and Energy Drinks, a Risky Combination and News Feed Researcher claims Study: Alcohol, Energy Drinks Are Risky Combo. But again, those headlines are misleading. That’s not what the “study” claims. The “study” never even mentions drunk driving, but sure enough some of the news reports do. All the “study” says is that drinking alcohol and caffeine might make you feel more stimulated which might possibly lead you to act more impulsively, which might make you engage in riskier behaviors. Maybe. Maybe we can agree that’s not exactly science, but propaganda.


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