Massachusetts’ ban of Four Loko last November sparked controversy and conversation about the idea of mixing caffeine and alcohol.
But the fruit-flavored malt beverage was not the first to create such a cocktail. People have been experimenting with the combination for many years, in homemade drinks such as Jägerbombs or Red Bull and vodka, as well as canned drinks such as Sparks.
The trend inspired Boston University School of Public Health professor Jonathan Howland and colleagues at the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies to study the effects of the mixture in a newly published study that began five years ago.
“We were not studying Four Loko per se,” Howland said. “We used a commercially available non-caffeinated beer and added caffeine ourselves to the caffeinated arm of the randomized trial.”
Howland and his team conducted the study with 21- to 30-year-olds, randomizing them and putting them into four groups, each with a different combination of caffeine or lack thereof and non-alcoholic or regular beer.
“We were inspired to study caffeinated alcoholic beverages because they were gaining popularity among young adults and we wanted to know how they compared to non-caffeinated alcoholic beverage with respect to risk,” Howland said.
In the study, the participants who received alcohol had a blood alcohol content of 0.12 percent. Shortly after drinking, these subjects were asked to attempt to drive on a simulator.
“Our finding was that there was no statistically significant difference in driving ability between study participants who were intoxicated with caffeinated versus non-caffeinated alcoholic beverage,” Howland said.
ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Brooke Hubbard, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Management, said her understanding of the mixture was that it changed the drinker’s comprehension of their own intoxication.
“What I heard surrounding the Four Loko phase was that the caffeine in the beverage gave people the energy that would change the normal experience of alcohol,” she said. “Therefore, drinkers would not recognize their level of intoxication, [which] can cause them to believe that they can drink more.”
So, is caffeine only a matter of perception? Howland said that while the problem has not been studied, it could be possible.
“Adding caffeine to alcohol may offset the sedating effects of alcohol,” he said. “This could distort people’s perception of their level of intoxication. Offsetting sedating effects of alcohol could also lead to further drinking, [but] we do not have experimental evidence of this effect.”
Hubbard said she believes people were more interested in Four Loko than its similar predecessors because it seems to be so different from those predecessors.
“Four Loko is a very flavored drink. It is supposed to taste like a juice punch, while vodka and Red Bull has less flavor to cover up the alcohol, which decreases the rate of consumption,” she said. “Four Loko gained a lot of attention because of the large size, large amount of alcohol and low price.”
LIKE ANY OTHER DRINK
Some BU students, such as CAS junior Aydar Shaildayev, were not under the impression that drinks like Four Loko make them any more or less inebriated, as Howland’s study also suggests.
“I never held the assumption that alcohol with caffeine in it would hinder my driving abilities any less,” Shaildayev said. “If I’m drunk, I’m drunk, and no amount of caffeine will reverse the effects of the alcohol already in my body.”
“I’ve just heard that you can stay up longer if you are drinking Four Loko instead of regular malt liquor beverages,” he said.
CAS freshman Samantha Monarch agreed.
“I hadn’t heard that drinking caffeine and alcohol together would negate the effects of both, but just alter the effects,” she said.”
She said that as far as she was concerned, there was no truth to purported advantages of the mixture.
“The caffeine boost may negate some of the sedating effects of alcohol, but I don’t know why they think it would alter the impairment,” she said. “The idea of drinking a coffee to ‘sober up’ has been discounted for quite some time.”
Others believed the effect of caffeine on the perception of intoxication was legitimate, regardless of what the mixture does directly to your body.
College of Communication sophomore Emily Silberstein said she was aware of the belief that caffeine “makes you feel less drunk and lessens the effects of alcohol.”
Silberstein said she thought Howland’s study made “a lot of sense.”
“I know that caffeine might make you feel slightly less drunk, even though you aren’t, but others might not and it’s important that they are aware of that.”
Hubbard agreed that the study made an important point for any drinkers of beverages like Four Loko who believe they are lessening the effects of the alcohol.
“The [study] was not surprising to me, unless [the study] is proving the opposite of what a lot of people thought was true,” she said. “Then I am surprised that people thought that drinking energy drinks would lessen the impairing effects of alcohol.”
Howland’s study aimed to make one point clear: caffeine does not affect the effects of alcohol.
“We hope that our study will inform people that adding caffeine to alcohol does not offset the impairing effects of intoxication,” he said.
But whether his evidence will change the actions of those drinking such mixtures is far less clear.
“The idea of mixing caffeine and alcohol isn’t a new one,” Monarch said. “Just because some study says a drink like Four Loko is unsafe doesn’t mean anybody is actually going to stop.”
“I don’t think [this study] would stop me or my friends from mixing. People still drink Red Bull and vodka, and that’s essentially what Four Loko is,” she said. “I don’t think people take the dangerous effects that seriously.
“Most people don’t think drinking Four Loko is much different than drinking any other drink,” she said.
For others, the study is irrelevant in a different way.
“I usually don’t mix alcohol and caffeine because the mixing of stimulants and depressants is useless, and slightly dangerous,” Shaildayev said. “I’d rather drink my liquor straight.”