By Rob McKenna and Dan Dixon, Special to The Seattle Times
Last week’s decision by the federal Food and Drug Administration to effectively ban the sale of alcoholic energy drinks is just the start of what needs to be done to keep young people safe.
Following a similar decision here by our governor and Liquor Control Board, the FDA ban is another important step toward ending efforts by companies to market alcoholic beverages to minors, and it directly confronts the dangers of combining alcohol with energy drinks.
But we shouldn’t be surprised if some companies continue to push alcohol products with marketing designed to encourage consumption beyond reasonable limits, or develop other beverages designed to skirt the law.
The Office of the Attorney General and the Swedish Health Education Program are working together to push for broader and longer-term solutions. We can all share these goals, which include:
- Increased education and outreach. Parents should be alert to products that are available — most of us had no idea that powerful alcoholic energy drinks s have become popular on college campuses, for example. Young people need to be fully aware not only of the dangers of over-imbibing, but also that combining alcohol and huge amounts of stimulants can be life threatening.
The recent mass alcohol poisoning in Roslyn is just the latest example. Earlier this month, a 21-year-old Maryland woman died from injuries sustained when she crashed her car after drinking two cans of Four Loko. In September, 23 students from Ramapo College in New Jersey were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko. In August, a 17-year-old girl from New York girl died from cardiac arrhythmia brought on by taking a diet pill and drinking Four Loko.
The ban helps to eliminate products that package in a single container the alcohol in six beers and the caffeine in three energy drinks. But of course some will continue to mix hard alcohol with energy drinks, so educators, public health officials and other influential adults must drive home messages about the need for awareness and common sense, and the tragic consequences that can ensue.
- Increased enforcement. Our state Liquor Control Board has one of the nation’s best records of preventing underage sales at state-run liquor stores. It’s more difficult to ensure enforcement in convenience stores. As state budgets tighten, the state must maintain and consider increasing resources for liquor enforcement.
- Continued investigation of ingredients. Scientists don’t fully understand the pharmacology of caffeine, let alone the other stimulants common to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic energy drinks such as taurine, guarana and yerba mate.
Young people have been drinking multiple cans of alcoholic energy drinks in one episode and it is the cumulative effect of consuming large amounts of caffeine and alcohol in a short time that is so dangerous. It’s not likely (or appealing) to “chug” multiple servings of Irish coffee in the same way young people consume these products.
We want to make sure that the public — university officials, law enforcement, establishments that serve alcoholic drinks, and especially young people — realize that mixing energy drink stimulants with alcohol produces the same result whether the drinks are pre-mixed or are mixed by the manufacturer, the bartender or the consumer.
We also expect that manufacturers of alcohol beverages and non-alcoholic energy drinks will heed the FDA’s warnings by stopping the practice of encouraging consumers to mix these products themselves.
We all want our teenagers and young adults to be safe from alcohol-related threats to their health. Drunken driving continues to pose a danger to everyone who shares the roads. That’s why when it comes to alcohol, we need to be smart, apply reasonable limits and encourage personal responsibility.
Rob McKenna is Attorney General for the State of Washington and Dan Dixon is Vice President of External Affairs at Swedish Health Services and a trustee at Central Washington University.