Mar 22

Alcohol and Caffeine – The ‘Wide Awake Drunk’

vodka red bullA paper published in the Medical Council on Alcohol Journal, “Alcohol and Alcoholism” identified a trend for the consumption of high caffeine-infused alcoholic drinks among Asian manual workers in a Taiwanese-based study1.

Incredibly, these trendy ‘pick-me-ups’ were being marketed as medicinal products that offset fatigue, and it was found that consumers were taking these drinks either before and/or during working hours.

Not surprisingly the report went on to highlight the increased risks of work-related accidents, and spiraling negative consequences from the functional use of caffeine/alcohol mixes as consumption increases and dependency becomes a real and present threat.

Here in Western society, the caffeine/alcohol mix has also risen in popularity in recent years, not so much by the manual working population, but more so by the younger, more affluent social drinkers who like to party late and party hard, and view the combination of caffeine and alcohol as the perfect cocktail (pun intended) to sustain a prolonged drinking session, enabling the reveler to stay awake longer and drink more alcohol. The perfect storm…

Perhaps the most iconic and well-known combination of such a cocktail would be vodka and Red Bull, although many late night bars and nightclubs have their own rocket-fueled versions.

Since it is known that caffeine acts as a stimulant, whilst alcohol (eventually) has a sedative effect, many drinkers have the mistaken belief that by drinking the two together they are simply cancelling each other out. However, studies have proposed that caffeine reduces the sedative effects of acute alcohol consumption, thereby inducing a state sometimes referred to as ‘wide-awake drunk’2.

This can lead the drinker to underestimate their level of intoxication and drink for longer periods of time increasing the risk of alcohol overdose and other alcohol-related harms.

There have been legislative attempts to restrict the sale of mixed caffeine/alcohol drinks – for example in 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration issued warnings to several manufacturers of combination drinks identifying caffeine as an ‘unsafe food additive’ and stated that their sale violated federal law. There are also restrictions on the production and sale of caffeinated alcohol beverages in some countries, including Canada, where caffeine can only be mixed with alcohol if it comes from a natural source (e.g. guarana) and Mexico where caffeinated alcohol beverage sales are prohibited in bar rooms and night clubs.

In the UK, alcohol-related harms and binge drinking are high on the political agenda and there have been calls for a legal restriction on the amount of caffeine that can be added to alcohol products, although such policies are often met with resistance and branded as signs of the ‘nanny-state’.

And of course, regardless of any legislation, individuals are still free to mix their own caffeine/alcohol cocktails at home if they so choose.

However, a final thought, lest we hasten to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, we should be careful that preoccupation with the caffeine/alcohol debate does not divert attention from the more pressing issue of harmful alcohol consumption more generally. While restricting the availability of caffeinated alcohol drinks may reduce emergency alcohol-related hospital attendance for example, this will be a drop in the ocean in the long-term battle against alcoholism and alcohol dependence as a whole.



Alcohol and Alcoholism Vol. 47, No. 4
ALCOHOL AND CAFFEINE Caffeinated Alcohol Beverages: A Public Health Concern
Angela S. Attwood
School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, UK



1 (Cheng et al., 2012).

2 (O’Brien et al., 2008; Arria et al., 2011; Berger et al., 2011; Howland et al., 2011).



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