Caffeine Dreams: Energy Drinks Increase Urge to Drink Alcohol

Smirnoff Vodka and Gordon's Gin are displayed at a Tesco Extra supermarket in Watford, U.K., north of London August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Creators of Four Loko weren't crazy when they came up with the marketing strategy for the sweet flavored (Grape, Fruit Punch, Citrus MaXed, etc.) alcohol-slash-energy drink. A new study conducted by the Center for Research on Aging, Health and Well-Being at the Australian National University in Canberra found that mixing energy drinks with booze results in intense cravings—for more alcohol.

In the study, 75 participants, ages 18 to 30, were assigned either a plain Smirnoff vodka and soda water drink or a mixture of Red Bull and Smirnoff vodka. A pineapple-coconut fruit drink was added to both concoctions to mask the taste and appearance of the energy drink and soda water.

Participants—60 percent of whom were women—all had to have consumed both alcohol and energy drinks in the past six months, although not necessarily together. The study didn't adjust alcohol dose based on body weight and sex and gave each participant the same exact measure of vodka (60 milliliters—a standard single shot glass is 44 milliliters). Participants were asked to take an Alcohol Urge Questionnaire 20 minutes before and after imbibing the libation to indicate how strong their desire was to continue drinking.

Those who drank the alcohol and energy drink combo reported a greater increase in the urge to continue drinking alcohol than the group drinking only vodka. The energy drink consumers also reported liking the cocktail more and wanting to drink more of it than those who only drank the vodka cocktail. The study found that there was no difference in sedation or stimulation between the two groups, although this might be because stimulation was only measured after the test had concluded.

However, the energy drink group had, on average, lower breath alcohol concentration (BAC). The study speculates that these lowered BAC levels might be attributed to the sugary additives found in energy drinks, such as inositol and taurine. These additives, along with a greater concentration of carbohydrates in energy drinks, can alter alcohol metabolism levels that may in turn decrease blood alcohol levels. However, the study notes that other unmeasured individual factors could also contribute to the link between lowered BAC levels and alcohol metabolism fluctuations, such as genetics, recent consumption of food and body weight.

The energy drink's sugary additives may also have been a significant factor in increasing the drive to drink more. According to a press release, "adding sweeteners to alcohol increases subsequent alcohol consumption, and therefore the sweetness of the energy drink may have augmented people's desire to drink more alcohol."

Concern among public health advocates about the popularity of energy drinks consumed with alcohol among young people prompted the study. The study reports that 34 to 51 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds regularly consume these caffeine cocktails, which place drinkers at risk for increased risk of alcohol dependence and increased problems associated with drinking, including drunk driving and injury. The directors of the study believe that continued research should help decrease alcohol abuse—and related accidents—among youngsters.

"Our findings suggest that energy drinks may increase people drinking to intoxication, and consequently increase the risk of alcohol-related problems like drunk-driving and alcohol-fuelled violence. Our study alone does not provide enough evidence to advocate for restrictions on the availability of energy drinks in bars, but it is an important step," said Rebecca McKetin, a fellow at Australian National University and one of the authors of the study.

Despite the need for further research, the study provides good food—or perhaps, drink—for thought for the next time you're thinking of pouring a Monster into your vodka.