Interview with Mary Claire O'Brien MD

Alcohol Justice

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Interview with Mary Claire O'Brien MD

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Mary O’Brien, MD is a professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicinein Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 2007, O'Brien collected data on the effect of combining alcohol and energy drinks on college-aged drinkers. Here’s what she told us.

Marin Institute: What is your background related to underage drinking prevention?

Mary O'Brien: I am a board certified emergency physician (American Board of Emergency Medicine) with more than 20 years of experience taking care of critically sick and injured patients. I have appointments in both Emergency Medicine and Public Health Sciences here at the medical school; my particular area of research is college alcohol, with emphasis on alcohol-related injury.

MI: What prompted you to undertake this research?

MO: A few years ago I took care of a college student in the emergency department who was profoundly intoxicated, who -- when he awoke many hours later -- told me he had been drinking Red Bull and vodka all night. I had no idea this was so popular. My fellow researchers and I decided to incorporate a few questions on mixing energy drinks with alcohol into the survey that we give annually to more than 4,000 college students at 10 universities in North Carolina, as part of a randomized clinical trial that uses an environmental approach (campus-community coalitions) to reduce alcohol-related consequences.

In November, we will present the full results of this particular inquiry at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, in Washington DC. [In the meantime], I can summarize a few of the findings.

MI: What was the most surprising aspect of the study?

MO: Overall, 16% of college students mix energy drinks with alcohol, which means 24% of students who drink alcohol are mixing energy drinks with alcohol, or about 1 in 4.

Also, the risk of alcohol-related consequences goes up when students mix energy drinks with alcohol, and not just because students drink more and drink longer when they add energy drinks, which they do.

There is also an increased risk of alcohol-related consequences independent of the quantity and frequency of alcohol, a synergistic effect of energy drinks and alcohol. In other words, even when you adjust for the amount of alcohol a student has ingested, those who mix alcohol and energy drinks are still at increased risk.

MI: Are any of these young drinkers aware of the role the alcohol industry plays in terms of specifically targeting them as consumers, both in its product development and its marketing?

MO: I don't know if kids know about how the alcohol industry is actively targeting them. From the perspective of industry, it's just effective marketing. I have no problem with marketing until it exposes people to more health risk. Then I have a big problem, especially because the health risks have not been publicized.

MI: What do you hope to achieve by presenting this to data at APHA?

MO: I'd like the APHA presentation to serve as a wake-up call. I'd like the federal government to immediately ban all alcoholic energy drinks and the adding of caffeine to all alcoholic beverages, to issue a strong warning statement on the potential health effects, and to require labeling on all energy drinks that warns about the serious health risks of mixing with alcohol.

In Austria, where Red Bull originated and is manufactured, all cans are required to have a warning label telling consumers not to mix alcohol with the drink. Italy, Australia, and New Zealand all require warnings. Sweden, Ireland, and others have issues national statements. What is the United States waiting for?

Editor’s note: If you know of anyone who has suffered from health or safety consequences of drinking alcohol combined with energy drinks, or from pre-mixed products, we would like to hear from you. Please email Marin Institute’s research and policy director, Michele Simon.