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FDA’s skepticism of alcoholic energy drinks is warranted

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 18, 2009 7:21 AM

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Your heart races while your head spins.

The intoxication from alcoholic energy drinks is unmistakable and distinct from other types of intoxication. Alcohol’s depressing numbness dulls the mind, while caffeine gives the body a buzz to keep it going.

The combination of effects is quite popular, creating a sub-industry in the greater brewing industry to supply a club-happy public with drinks that both mellow and provide a kick. The federal Food and Drug Administration pulled the plug on the fun last week, however, asking 28 companies to defend their mass-produced, caffeine-infused alcoholic beverages.

It is right to come down on these companies. Artificially inserting caffeine into alcoholic beverages is illegal from a FDA de facto ban — and rightly so. The combination of the two drugs can harm people, both young and old.

Caffeine is not a natural product in ordinary fermentation or distillation. Brewers must artificially insert the substance into alcoholic beverages in order to produce the popular product. This process is illegal without prior approval from the FDA under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Until the FDA approves — or they are deemed Generally Recognized As Safe — such products are banned, according to the FDA’s website. To date, the FDA has only approved artificially inserting caffeine into soft drinks — not alcoholic beverages.

Injecting caffeine into soft drinks is one thing. Including it in an alcoholic beverage is quite another. Besides a plethora of preservatives (mandated by the FDA, no less), the primary substance in most soft drinks is corn syrup, which causes nowhere near the same amount of harmful side effects alcohol does.

The special drinks’ negative effects are well-documented.

Alcohol is a depressant. Caffeine is a stimulant. The two substances create opposite neural-chemical reactions in the body and can lead to significant health and heart problems. Aside from the havoc wreaked by the opposite effects within the body, the two chemicals combine to elevate a person’s blood pressure. High blood pressure can lead to kidney and liver damage, as well increase the risks of strokes and blindness.

A Tuesday Daily Iowan story referenced a 2007 Wake Forest study indicating consumers of these beverages are at a greater risk of being taken advantage sexually and have a higher proclivity toward experiencing alcohol-related consequences, such as requiring medical treatment.

But there are other factors to consider, such as the public’s right to choose what to consume.

Regulations like these do restrict people’s ability to choose their pursuit of happiness, however fleeting. People should generally have decision-making autonomy, but in a democratic republic, citizens entrust our leadership to monitor and ensure the safety of the products we choose as well.

The de facto ban on alcoholic beverages containing caffeine does not preclude people from mixing the drinks themselves. Nor does it prevent the public from ordering these drinks at local nightclubs.

The FDA’s current regulation ensures the public’s safety and well-being by ensuring the quality of the products we buy.

Time will tell if such drinks are harmful enough to warrant explicit prohibition or should remain in the market under proper supervision. Alcohol-infused energy drinks are very popular at the bars, but people should be aware of the side effects. Until the public writ large is more cognizant, both the government and consumers should act responsibly when handling these dangerous drinks.


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