In recent years, it has become popular for young drinkers to mix caffeinated energy drinks with alcoholic beverages. Some manufacturers responded to this trend by developing pre-mixed versions of the drinks. One such drink, called Four Loko, was marketed as an energy drink, but it contained up to 12 percent alcohol by volume (most beers are 4 percent to 6 percent alcohol). Four Loko was also promoted, in part, on social networking websites that targeted college-aged drinkers.
Concerns soon arose that the "energy" component of these beverages masked the feelings of intoxication that normally accompany alcohol use, leading people to drink more than they realized. In 2010, injuries and accidents attributed to the use of Four Loko caused a number of colleges to ban the drink. In addition, two wrongful death lawsuits—each involving underage drinkers—have been filed against the maker of Four Loko. One of these suits alleges that a 15-year-old drank two cans of Four Loko before he became paranoid and disoriented, ran into a road and was struck by an SUV. The other suit alleges that a 20-year-old shot himself in the head after consuming a large amount of the drink.
Pressure from various states caused MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch to reformulate their alcoholic energy drinks. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration warned other drink manufacturers, including the makers of Four Loko, that their products were unsafe. Thus, alcoholic energy drinks were essentially banned. Four Loko is now sold without caffeine or other stimulants, and it is no longer marketed as an energy drink.
What makes alcoholic energy drinks so dangerous and attractive to young drinkers? Psychological research provides some clues. For one, energy drinks do appear to mask the subjective symptoms of alcohol intoxication without reducing alcohol's effects on motor and visual functioning (Ferreira et al., 2006; Price et al., 2010), which forms a dangerous combination. Research also suggests that students often drink more alcohol when they combine it with energy drinks (Price et al., 2010).
In addition, the advertising of these drinks may have had a strong impact on young people. Although there appears to be no research specifically addressing the marketing of alcoholic energy drinks, energy drink advertising campaigns often target younger people, and each year a typical adolescent may encounter thousands of beer, wine and liquor advertisements in print, on television and on the radio (Aitken, 1988; Unger et al., 2003). Research suggests that there is an association between advertising exposure and adolescents' drinking behaviors, though it is difficult to infer a causal relationship (Anderson et al., 2009). For example, results from one study indicate that advertising exposure is positively associated with increased alcohol consumption, and each per-capita dollar spent on advertising is associated with a 3 percent increase in the number of drinks consumed each month (Snyder et al., 2006).
Research also suggests that the manufacturers' use of social networking sites and other new media advertising strategies may have had a strong impact upon adolescent consumers. As a group, adolescents are frequent users of social networking sites, and they sometimes use these sites to discuss substance use and other risky behaviors with friends (Williams & Merten, 2008). Adolescents who read posts about alcohol use on these sites tend to perceive them as indicative of their peers' actual behaviors, which may in turn influence their attitudes toward alcohol use (e.g., Baker & White, 2010; Moreno et al., 2009). For example, adolescents who read Facebook profiles that reference alcohol use and who perceive such use as typical are more likely to report having thoughts that predict alcohol use (Litt & Stock, 2011).
In short, the available research seems to confirm the fears that contributed to the banning of the beverages, but there are few studies directly on point. It remains to be seen how the courts will handle suits associated with these drinks, and new psychological research could prove very helpful in those cases.
"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).