Extreme energy drinks are earning an edgy reputation and, in many cases, some severe criticism from parents, lawmakers, and industry watchdogs. The most recent stir has come from reports that alcoholic and non-alcoholic energy drinks are virtually impossible to tell apart. In Kentucky, 25 store clerks were fined in five months for inadvertently selling to minors. But the most ‘hard core’ energy drinks don’t even need alcohol to raise eyebrows, and concern.
Take the drink “Cocaine” manufactured by Redux Beverages. The makers have tagged their product as “The Legal Alternative” and claim it is 350% the strength of Red Bull. The FDA pulled the product from shelves last year for illegally marketing the drink as “a street drug alternative and a dietary supplement.” But “Cocaine” has since returned to consumer shelves in 19 states and, despite being outlawed in others, has a cult following among teenagers.
This week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is speaking out against another drink that–if it is even possible–takes the drug association a step farther.
“Blow” is an energy drink mix sold online in the form of a white powder packaged in “bricks” and vials. Consumers can order the “stash box” or “recreational user” sizes, or can sign up to “deal” for commission. Attorney General Madigan calls the marketing “blatant promotion of drug culture and addiction,” and has demanded the company cease all marketing and sales in Illinois.
In fact, “Blow” contains so much caffeine that it is classified by the FDA as a new and un-approved drug. This high caffeine content is a concern in many of todays more ‘intense’ energy drinks. It is unknown whether these levels are safe for consumption, particularly in teenagers, whose smaller bodies are more susceptible to chemicals. So when alcohol is added to the mix, the drinks become even more potentially dangerous.
Industry watchdog The Marin Institute recently found that the marketing and branding techniques of alcoholic energy drinks mirror those used for the drinks already popular with teens. Both use “grassroots” marketing strategies (such as Myspace, Facebook, and text messages) plus bright colors and glamorous imagery on packaging and websites. The pre-mixed alcoholic beverages are not only difficult to tell from their ‘sober’ counterparts. They are also cheaper than buying alcohol separately and mixing.
The report concludes that these beverages are directly targeted at a teenage audience, and that beverage companies are encouraging the association of energy drinks and excessive consumption of alcohol.
But once the drinks are in teenager’s hands, it’s not just the alcohol or the high caffeine content that is dangerous. The combination impacts the user’s awareness of the alcohol’s effects. “Caffeine, a stimulant, masks the intoxicating effects of alcohol, which may lead to increased risk-taking,” says the Marin Institute’s report. As if excessive and potentially dangerous levels of caffeine weren’t enough, these companies are targeting teen audiences with alcohol as well.
Illinois Attorney General Madigan is on the right track by putting her foot down on the makers of “Blow.” But government agencies need to step up their standards and enforcement. But consumers also need to take an active role, voicing concern to government officials as well as to the companies that profit from the sales of these potent beverages.