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Alcoholic energy drink sales soar

May 29 2012

Bar-hoppers continue to ignore the dangers of mixing caffeine and alcohol, driving up sales of combination drinks.

Sales for pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks increased by almost 300 per cent from April 2005 to April 2010, according to a report released last week by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria.

Co-author Kristina Brache said the results are a concern, with young adults cited as the group most at risk of side effects that include heart palpitations, dehydration and hangovers.

She said education campaigns could go a long way to curbing the problem. "Students are aware that it has some types of risks, some complaints," Brache said, "but I don't think they're aware of the extent of the risks."

The report suggests increasing prices for alcoholic energy drinks or limiting the amount of caffeine in each drink.

Brache said one long-term solution could be removing energy drinks from bars and clubs.

Even though energy-drink labels warn against adding alcohol, combination drinks are still preferred by many consumers.

The report included references to a University of Victoria student survey that solicited responses from 465 students.

Motivations for drinking alcohol-caffeine beverages varied: 35 per cent cited a desirable taste, 27.7 per cent wanted an energy boost, 20.2 per cent wanted to stay awake while drinking and 9.5 per cent wanted a quicker reaction to the alcohol.

Brache said she wasn't surprised by the results because other researchers in the field have made similar findings.

"There are concerns about these products all over the world," said professor Tim Stockwell, who co-authored the report with colleagues Brache and Gerald Thomas. He added that increasing sales is a global phenomenon.

The beverages come in two forms - pre-mixed drinks made by manufacturers to be sold in liquor stores or licensed bars and hand-mixed drinks. Some bars sell alcohol and energy drinks separately, allowing consumers to mix a drink at the table.

Alcoholic energy drinks result in a "wide-awake drunk" feeling that can lead consumers to feel less drunk than they actually are. Caffeine is a stimulant, while alcohol has the reverse effect, depressing the central nervous system.

"The blood-alcohol level is just the same," Stockwell said. "It's an age-old pattern of combining uppers and downers.

"The higher the caffeine content, the more likely people will stay awake and - act on impulses they'll later regret."

These impulses can include drinking and driving, drinking and cycling or continuing to drink alcohol beyond a safe limit.

"The alcohol is taking away people's fear," he said, "and the caffeine is giving people the energy to act without those fears."

Alberta, New Brunswick and Quebec are the only provinces without limitations on the amount of caffeine in pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks. The rest of the country caps caffeine at 30 mg per serving.

In non-alcoholic energy drinks, the caffeine content can run between 80 mg and 200 mg, allowing consumers to hand-mix higher concentrations of caffeine with alcohol.

Health Canada stipulates that pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks must contain caffeine derived from a natural source - guarana is the most common.

But Stockwell said that makes no difference.

"It's comparable to sugar from fruits for diabetics," he said. "It's still sugar."


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