AEDs are prepackaged beverages that combine alcohol with caffeine and other ingredients commonly associated with nonalcoholic energy drinks including taurine, guarana, ginseng, wormwood, sugar, and dyes. They may be malt- or distilled spirits-based. Malt-based Joose and Four Loko are among the popular AED brands. P.I.N.K. Vodka and V2 Vodka are examples of distilled spirit-based AEDs. AEDs have a higher alcohol content than beer (5%-12% compared to 4%-5% for most beer). The caffeine and other stimulants content is often unknown or not labeled.
The “energy” component of AEDs includes stimulants, primarily caffeine, that research shows masks the intoxicating effects of alcohol and creates, in effect, a “wide awake drunk”. As a result, consumers may misjudge their level of intoxication and engage in risky behavior such as driving while intoxicated. The stimulants also encourage greater consumption by counteracting the depressant effects of the alcohol, increasing the risk of binge drinking.
Caffeine and alcohol are both diuretics and can heighten the risk of severe dehydration. The addition of high quantities of sugar speeds up the absorption of alcohol, leading to intoxication faster. Young people are particularly vulnerable to these effects, as they are more likely to engage in risk taking behavior, are less experienced in gauging the debilitating effects of alcohol, and are more at risk of acute alcohol problems, including traffic crashes, violence, sexual assault, and suicide.
AEDs build on the popularity of nonalcoholic energy drinks, a market which has exploded in the last ten years, particularly among young people. Teenagers and young adults are the core consumer group for energy drinks. According to a recent report, thirty-one percent of 12- to 17-year-olds and 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds report regular consumption of energy drinks. Consumption of energy drinks drops dramatically with age.
AED marketing mimics nonalcoholic energy drink marketing. It emphasizes non-traditional media and “grassroots” one-to-one communications such as internet sites, chat rooms, logos on merchandise, text messaging, event sponsorship, and other communication channels popular with teenagers. There is only minimal reliance on traditional channels such as television, radio, magazines, and outdoor advertising.
The messages often have youth-oriented themes such as enhanced partying, extreme sport images, sexual attraction, risk taking, and rebellion. The stimulating effects of the product are emphasized by messages such as “You can sleep when you’re 30.”
Most AEDs are packaged in containers that are similar to those used for nonalcoholic energy drinks, with similar “energy” graphics (e.g., lightning bolts), brand names, and colors. Distinguishing them requires careful inspection to find the alcohol label. Anecdotal reports suggest that many parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel, and retail clerks cannot distinguish the two types of products and may not even be aware that AEDs exist.
On November 13, 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a notification to nearly 30 manufacturers of AEDs. This letter indicated the manufacturers would have 30 days to produce evidence that adding caffeine to alcohol in their product is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) or has been subject to a prior sanction.
At this time, the FDA has only approved caffeine as an additive to cola-type beverages with a concentration of no more than 200 parts per million. There are no food additive regulations that allow the addition of caffeine to alcoholic beverages.
[Click here for FDA resources]
On May 10, 2007, 29 state attorneys general sent a letter to Anheuser-Busch to express concern over Spykes, a 12% AED packaged in 2-ounce bottles that looked like nail polish with marketing messages that appealed to youth. Anheuser-Busch terminated production of the product. On August 20, 2007, 30 State Attorneys General sent a letter to TTB calling on the agency to investigate AED marketing. When TTB failed to take action, several State Attorneys General offices started their own investigation, focusing on Miller’s Sparks brand and Tilt and Bud Extra, produced by Anheuser Busch. In response, Anheuser Busch agreed in June 2008 to stop adding stimulants to any of its products. In December 2008, MillerCoors agreed to remove all caffeine from its Sparks brand and to no longer make caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
Montana recently passed a law reclassifying AEDs as distilled spirits. Many states restrict the sale of distilled spirits to liquor stores while beer can be sold at grocery stores and convenience markets where they are more accessible to youth and can be confused with non-alcoholic energy drinks. Along these lines, Virginia has passed a law requiring licensed retailers to only place AEDs in the same location where wine and beer are available on the premises.