Clubbers who knock back vodka and drinks such as the massively popular Red Bull may have been falsely reassured by laboratory studies that don’t reflect ‘real world’ use, says Professor Peter Miller.
He said concerns are growing about the harms that may arise from drinkers mixing alcohol and energy drinks which enable them to drink for longer and achieve ‘higher levels of intoxication’.
Surveys show around three out of four college students in Europe and the US regularly indulge in such combinations.
But the role played by energy drinks is under-researched and much of the work has only studied the effects of mixing low levels of alcohol with a single energy drink, said Prof Miller, associate professor of psychology at Deakin University in Australia.
Although some researchers have concluded ‘we should not be concerned about the risks’, many of them have been funded by the makers of Red Bull, he said.
At a recent conference in Australia, four out of five researchers who presented research on alcohol and energy drinks had received financial support from Red Bull, says Prof Miller, writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) (must credit).
They had been given funds to attend international conferences or for research and all concluded there was no evidence showing a combination of energy drinks and alcohol increased drinking or harm.
However, studies looking at statistical links between certain forms of behaviour and drinkers mixing energy drinks and alcohol show they are more likely to consume bigger quantities of alcohol, engage in aggressive acts, get injured and drink-drive.
Prof Miller said he was worried that research does not consider real world levels of consumption, because ethical concerns mean lab studies are restricted to testing the effects of a single alcoholic drink and a single energy drink - equivalent to a strong cup of coffee.
However, about 40 per cent of people on city streets in Australian on Friday and Saturday nights are heavily intoxicated and nearly a quarter will have drunk more than two energy drinks, he said.
Current research has failed to prove the stimulant effect doesn’t fuel intoxication and increase the risk of alcohol-related injuries and assaults, he said.
But ‘reassuring results’ have come mainly from researchers giving talks at conferences where ‘audience may not be aware of the extent of their industry sponsorship’, said Prof Miller.
He said ‘I am not implying a causal relationship here, simply an association.’ ‘There are concerns about the role that Red Bull is playing, especially in supporting conference attendance of researchers whose findings and conclusions are favourable.
‘Having the same speakers funded to attend conferences around the world by a company with strong financial interests raises questions of propriety and the presentation of research findings being used as a commercial marketing strategy’ he added.
Only the independent researchers have argued that more studies are needed to assess the risks.
Prof Miller said ‘It is critical that the public can be confident in the findings of research on these products. Conference organisers should require researchers working on energy drinks to declare whether they have received research funding or unrestricted grants, or financial support to attend meetings or conferences.’