It's 8 p.m. and you have a 10-page paper due in exactly 12 hours. Your cursor blinks on an empty screen. So you crack open the first of several energy drinks and settle down to pull an all-nighter.
This is not an unusual scene in college, where procrastination and overextension run rampant. But a new study from the university's public health school suggests that energy drinks can have a damaging effect on their own and that there is also a direct correlation — if not a verifiable causation — between energy drinks and alcohol dependence.
For the study, family science professor Amelia Arria and fellow researchers in the Center on Young Adult Health and Development looked at data for 1,100 seniors at an unnamed large public university, who were asked about their drinking habits over the previous 12 months.
Of those seniors, 10 percent drank energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster more than 52 days a year. These students, dubbed "high-frequency" drinkers, drank alcohol more often during the year than their peers who had fewer energy drinks — an average of 142 days a year, versus 103 days for the "low-frequency" energy drinker group.
Kim Caldeira, a researcher who worked on the study, said the correlation between energy drinks and alcohol was hardly shocking.
"It was not surprising, but the association was stronger than we expected," Caldeira said, adding that while many studies have pointed to an association between abusing energy drinks and abusing alcohol, there still isn't evidence that one causes the other.
"For a lot of people, it's the energy drinks that cause a risk in alcohol dependence, but it's also completely possible that people who already have a drinking problem use energy drinks more because they are hungover and need to get through the day," Caldeira said. "You just can't tell from this story."
However, the risk of energy drink abuse is high, Caldeira said, adding that she hopes the research will contribute to public policy aimed at regulating the drinks.
"I think there are policy changes that would help to protect college students," Caldeira said. "For example, there are no labeling requirements, nothing that tells you how much caffeine you are drinking."
She added that labels could also be added to caution people of the affects of mixing alcohol with caffeine — something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently taken a stand on regarding drinks that come pre-mixed with caffeine and alcohol, such as the popular Four Loko.
Daniel Evatt, a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University's medical school, likened energy drinks to other products that include high amounts of caffeine and whose producers are legally bound to label the ingredients and potential effects.
"If you buy a sleep aid with a lot of caffeine, it tells you how much is in it and has the possible negative effect so that people have an idea of what they are getting into," Evatt said.
The researchers focused on energy drinks more than another late-night staple — coffee — because they said the beverages are targeted at young people. Evatt said youth often have little to no previous experience with caffeine. The large amounts of sugar added to the beverages makes them taste better to young people, but they don't realize how much caffeine they are ingesting, he said.
"The biggest concern is with caffeine, hands down," Evatt said. "The concern is that if you don't usually drink caffeine and you drink a lot at once, you are more likely to experience caffeine intoxication, which can be dangerous."
Caffeine intoxication is a clinical syndrome that is marked by nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, tremors, rapid heartbeats and, in rare cases, death.
But for many students, energy drinks provide them with a way to stay up, stay energized and get everything done — regardless of the side effects.
"Between my internship, classes and extracurriculars, it's almost impossible to get everything done correctly without skipping out on some sleep, which is where energy drinks come in," junior marketing major Caitlin Talty said.
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