of alcoholic energy drinks
By MarC W. PEarCE, JD, PhD, uNIvErSIty OF NEBraSka–LINCOLN • ByrON L. zaMBOaNga,
PhD, SMIth COLLEgE • kathryNE vaN tyNE, uNIvErSIty OF ChICagO
In recent years, it has become popular for young drinkers to mix caffeinated energy drinks with alcoholic beverages.
Some manufacturers responded to this trend by developing premixed versions of the drinks. One such drink, called Four Loko,
was marketed as an energy drink, but it contained up to 12 percent alcohol by volume (most beers are 4 percent to 6 percent
alcohol). Four Loko was also promoted, in part, on social networking websites that targeted college-aged drinkers.
Concerns soon arose that the “energy” component of these
beverages masked the feelings of intoxication that normally
accompany alcohol use, leading people to drink more than
they realized. In 2010, injuries and accidents attributed to the
use of Four Loko caused a number of colleges to ban the drink.
In addition, two wrongful death lawsuits — each involving
underage drinkers — have been filed against the maker of Four
Loko. One of these suits alleges that a 15-year-old drank two
cans of Four Loko before he became paranoid and disoriented,
ran into a road and was struck by an SUV. The other suit alleges
that a 20-year-old shot himself in the head after consuming a
large amount of the drink.
Pressure from various states caused MillerCoors and
Anheuser-Busch to reformulate their alcoholic energy drinks.
In addition, the Food and Drug Administration warned other
drink manufacturers, including the makers of Four Loko, that
their products were unsafe. Thus, alcoholic energy drinks were
essentially banned. Four Loko is now sold without caffeine or
other stimulants, and it is no longer marketed as an energy
What makes alcoholic energy drinks so dangerous and
attractive to young drinkers? Psychological research provides
some clues. For one, energy drinks do appear to mask the
subjective symptoms of alcohol intoxication without reducing
alcohol’s effects on motor and visual functioning (Ferreira et al.,
2006; Price et al., 2010), which forms a dangerous combination.
Research also suggests that students often drink more alcohol
when they combine it with energy drinks (Price et al., 2010).
In addition, the advertising of these drinks may have had a
strong impact on young people. Although there appears to be
no research specifically addressing the marketing of alcoholic
energy drinks, energy drink advertising campaigns often
target younger people, and each year a typical adolescent may
encounter thousands of beer, wine and liquor advertisements
in print, on television and on the radio (Aitken, 1988; Unger et
al., 2003). Research suggests that there is an association between
advertising exposure and adolescents’ drinking behaviors,
though it is difficult to infer a causal relationship (Anderson
et al., 2009). For example, results from one study indicate that
advertising exposure is positively associated with increased
alcohol consumption, and each per-capita dollar spent on
advertising is associated with a 3 percent increase in the number
of drinks consumed each month (Snyder et al., 2006).
It remains to be seen how the courts will
handle suits associated with these drinks,
and new psychological research could
prove very helpful in those cases.
Research also suggests that the manufacturers’ use of social
networking sites and other new media advertising strategies
may have had a strong impact upon adolescent consumers. As
a group, adolescents are frequent users of social networking
sites, and they sometimes use these sites to discuss substance
use and other risky behaviors with friends (Williams & Merten,
2008). Adolescents who read posts about alcohol use on these
sites tend to perceive them as indicative of their peers’ actual
behaviors, which may in turn influence their attitudes toward
alcohol use (e.g., Baker & White, 2010; Moreno et al., 2009). For
example, adolescents who read Facebook profiles that reference
alcohol use and who perceive such use as typical are more likely
to report having thoughts that predict alcohol use (Litt & Stock,
In short, the available research seems to confirm the fears
that contributed to the banning of the beverages, but there are
few studies directly on point. It remains to be seen how the
courts will handle suits associated with these drinks, and new
psychological research could prove very helpful in those cases. n
“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the
Psychological Study of Social Issues).