On two separate occasions this year Cathy Finck lined up energy drink cans before a group of teenagers and their parents and asked them to point out which ones did or did not contain alcohol. Neither crowd passed the informal test. (Take our test here)
“Very few got all of the answers right because the packaging for both look very much the same,” she recalls, noting that both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions typically are packaged in brightly-colored cans with eye-catching graphics. “It’s really hard to tell the difference. That’s very disturbing considering the fact that the majority of those who drink these drinks are young people.”
Finck and fellow Cobb Alcohol Taskforce members say that the outcome of their exercises conveys one of the many reasons why the caffeine-laden alcoholic energy drinks often marketed to young people should be permanently pulled from Georgia store shelves. The Marietta-based non-profit is joining in the national chorus of critics seeking to raise awareness about the potency of these drinks, following an incident last month that left nine Central Washington University students hospitalized. All of the students reportedly fell ill after consuming the product "Four Loko," at an off-campus party.
“I’d like to see them banned; they’re dangerous and they serve no purpose in society,” says board vice chairperson Cathy Wendholt-McDade.
Task force members and others across the country complain that manufacturers market the cheap drinks (about $3 per 24-ounces) nicknamed “blackout in a can” and “cocaine in a can” to young people using fruit flavors that mask the taste of alcohol. The caffeine, they say, initially disguises the effect of the alcohol content, leaving most drinkers (especially young, inexperienced ones) unaware of the extent of their intoxication.
“When you mix a depressant like alcohol with a stimulant like caffeine it confuses the nervous system in the body, creating a wide awake drunk,” explains Finck, the task force coordinator. “Binge drinking is more likely to occur with this potent mixture. One brand in particular has 12 percent alcohol in just one can. That’s the equivalent of drinking a six-pack of light beer in one drink.”
“There hasn’t been enough research conducted on the long-term effects of these drinks,” says the mother of two teens, a daughter, 16, and a son, 13. “They contain two addictive substances – caffeine and alcohol and that’s going to be a problem too. These drinks are served cold so [people] drink them much faster than, say a cup of coffee, and that’s not good either.”
Board members plan to discuss strategies to raise awareness about the alleged harmful effects of these products on Tuesday during an afternoon board meeting that is also open to the public. Unlike many organizations that often exclusively focus on discouraging young people from underage and binge drinking, the task force also targets the role adults play in the problem.
Its youth council members won’t be at the Tuesday meeting, but the council members brainstormed about ways to combat the drinks last month at the organization’s youth summit. Council chairperson Jinny Park was among the 47 teens who participated. She says some teens and young adults even post photos and discuss their experiences with the drinks on social media websites like Facebook.
“The people in my crowd aren’t taking part in drinking those drinks, but after a crazy party I do hear a lot of people at school talking about drinking them,” says Park, a senior at Walton High in Marietta. “I don’t think most people know the consequences of drinking these drinks; that some of them have the same alcohol level as beer.”
One idea youth task force members have for taking a stance is including the drinks in the signature “sticker shock” exercises, where they team up with local Mothers Against Drunk Driving members in placing warning stickers on alcohol containers at Cobb County stores.
“We’re also trying to get data from the emergency room managers to get the facts on how many kids are coming in with injuries related to these drinks,” Park adds.
Board members are also waging a letter writing campaign urging U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) brass to step in. Finck says last November the FDA opened an investigation into the drinks, but it has yet to release any results. “We’re writing them and asking them to release its report and take some action,” says Finck.
So far Georgia has taken no formal action, but many others aren’t waiting for the FDA’s findings. Attorneys general in 29 states have said the drinks pose a serious health and safety risk to youth.
Last week the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board sent a letter out asking retailers to voluntarily halt the sale of the alcoholic energy drinks there until the FDA determines whether or not they are safe. Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission has already banned them statewide. Some states have barred them from college campuses.
“Although it’s not on anyone’s slate of things to do, I feel confident that something will happen with this in Georgia by the [time of the] next legislative session,” says Wendholt-McDade. “Many young people who are drinking these don’t really know what’s in them. It’s our job as adults to protect them and get the facts out about the dangers of these drinks.”
In 2007, alcohol watchdog organizations and politicians pressured Anheuser-Busch to voluntarily pull its 12-percent alcohol beverage Spykes off the market. In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued MillerCoors Brewing Company, claiming the marketing campaign for its alcoholic energy drink, Sparks targeted young people. The product is still on the market, but the company agreed to reformulate its ingredients. Wendholt-McDade insists that’s not enough.
“I hate the name energy drink because it implies that it’s something healthy,” she says. “They claim it gives you energy and who doesn’t want energy, right? These drinks definitely aren’t the way to get it.”
The board meeting is slated for noon to 2 p.m. at the Ben Robertson Community Center, 2753 Watts Drive NW, Kennesaw, GA, 30144. Anyone interested in attending is asked to RSVP by calling 404-791-7406 or emailing www.cobbat.org/contact_us.
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.