Wide-awake drunk | Alcohol-caffeine combo creates national stir

A college student with a full-time job, Charles Fee is a big fan of energy drinks. So when it came to planning his weekends, the Buckhead resident shifted smoothly to the combination of caffeine and alcohol.

"I do one because I can stay pepped up and dance the night away," said Fee, 21, as he studied Friday for a test on the grounds of Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody.

Many young drinkers are rolling their eyes at government attempts to curb the sale of products that combine alcohol and caffeine. They say the drinks represent just another alcoholic offering, and they resent the government's intrusion into their personal freedom.

"All the people I see doing it are just enjoying themselves," said Xavier Thompson, 18, of Dunwoody. "If that's their preference, then they should be able to do what they want."

Others in the drinks' target demographic say the beverages are bad news, making those who drink them a danger to themselves and others.

Tea Kvarats, 19, has watched young adults gulp the boozy energy drinks and quickly get out of hand.

"They break stuff. Sometimes they get in fights out of nothing," said Kvarats, of Dunwoody. "They act pretty crazy."

Even as the federal government cracks down against such drinks, local officials are taking action. The Fulton County Commission recently passed a resolution that forces distributors to post a warning sign near the combination drinks.

"Because of the combo of alcohol and caffeine, a person is not aware how much they are drinking, so they continue drinking until they can't take any more," said Fulton Commissioner Robb Pitts, who sponsored the new regulation. He said the county commission can't ban the drinks but he intends to take the issue to state lawmakers.

The debate has heightened after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday warned four manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks that they have 15 days to remove the caffeine from the drinks or stop distributing them. The makers of a popular brand, called Four Loko, have agreed to remove the caffeine.

The FDA's move followed several high-profile incidents around the country in which dozens of college students were treated for alcohol poisoning after indulging in Four Loko and similar  products. Several state attorneys general have called for investigations into the beverages, and a few states have banned them. Georgia is not among them.

Parents and public health officials worry that these beverages are marketed aggressively to young adults. Four Loko offers drinks flavored with fruit punch and raspberry. A 23.5-ounce can cost about $2.50 and, with an alcohol content of 12 percent, is equal to four beers.

"It looks like another energy drink," said Katherine Schamay, a Roswell mother of two teens. "I think it's dangerous."

Public health officials are concerned that the caffeinated alcohol drinks promote binge drinking, said Dr. Robert Brewer, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s program designed to combat it. The CDC defines binge drinking as four drinks or more per occasion for women, and five drinks or more for men.

Brewer called the beverages "binge drinking in a can" because the alcohol content is so high.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said the combination drinks appear to pose a serious health threat in that the caffeine can mask the effects of alcohol, leading to a state of "wide awake drunk." These drinks have been linked to alcohol poisoning, car accidents and assaults, she said.

Jaime Ibarra, 22, of Dallas, said that even if the government bans the drinks, some young people will simply mix alcohol and energy drinks on their own.

"They're getting popular now," Ibarra said of the drinks. "People know they can chug one down and they're set."

Hollis Smith, 37, couldn’t help but reflect on some of his own past partying behaviors involving such combo drinks. Years ago, the Atlanta man enjoyed a night on the town, mixing vodka with such energy drinks as Red Bull, a combination that remains popular in the bar scene today.

“At times I would almost begin to have a euphoric feeling, and the next day not remember a great deal of the night before,” Hollis recalled. "A little scary."

Despite the euphoria, Smith began to dislike “how out of control” he became after mixing alcohol and caffeine. So he stopped.

“There also comes a time when an individual has to wake up and say, ‘Hey I need to change this behavior.' " he said.

News services contributed to this report.