A new study has revealed that those who drink supersized versions of flavored alcohol are more likely to binge drink and to suffer alcohol-related injuries. The study looked specifically at underage drinkers, and according to the CDC, around 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by under-21s is in the form of binge drinking. Bingeing is the most common pattern of excessive drinking in the U.S. and is associated with a multitude of health problems, including liver disease, neurological damage, high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Therefore, finding out what’s associated with it—particularly for youth—is a priority for reducing both alcohol-related harm and the risk of developing addiction.
Type of Alcohol Consumed Affects Risks
The researchers used data on 1,031 underage drinking youth (aged 13 to 20) from the Alcohol Brand Research Among Underage Youth study, which recruited from 2011 to 2012. The researchers set out to examine the effect of the type of drink consumed on alcohol-related outcomes, looking at three types of beverages either alone or in combination: malt-based drinks (like Mike’s Hard Lemonade or Smirnoff Ice), spirit-based drinks (like pre-mixed or ready-to-drink cocktails) and supersized alcopops (like Four Loko). The supersized drinks contain about four to five beers’ worth of alcohol in a single container, according to study author David Jernigan.
The researchers focused on underage drinkers who had consumed flavored alcoholic drinks in the past month, which previous research from the same group suggests account for around half of all underage drinkers.
The headline finding from the study concerns the supersized alcopops, which when consumed exclusively were associated with an over four-fold increase in risk of binge drinking and an over six-fold increase in risk of alcohol-related injuries in comparison to those not consuming flavored drinks. For cocktails and other spirit-based drinks consumed exclusively, there was a 2.6-fold increase in the risk of binge drinking and a 6.5-fold increase in the risk of alcohol-related injuries requiring medical attention. For those who consumed two or more types of flavored alcoholic drinks, there was a 2.8-fold increase in the risk of binge drinking, an over three-fold increase in the odds of fighting and a 2.8-fold increase in risk of alcohol-related injuries.
The difference in risk can also be seen through the percentage of those consuming each type of flavored drink who engaged in binge drinking: 70 percent of spirit-based drink consumers, 75 percent of supersized alcopop consumers and 80 percent of those consuming two or more types of flavored beverage reported binge drinking, in comparison to 45 percent of non-flavored drink consumers. Each of these three groups also consumed more drinks per day and drank on more days per month than non-flavored drink consumers.
Study author Alison Albers commented that, “These findings raise important concerns about the popularity and use of flavored alcoholic beverages among young people, particularly for the supersized varieties. Public health practitioners and policymakers would be wise to consider what further steps could be taken to keep these beverages out of the hands of youth.”
Supersized, Flavored Drinks and Binge Drinking
The main focus of the study is supersized flavored drinks, which many are concerned lead to binge drinking due to their size and palatability—hardly even tasting like alcohol in most cases.
Said Jernigan: “Even though the can may have a serving size (though most don’t), teens are treating them as a single serving. Some people in the field call it a binge in a can. The re-sealable top is more of a joke.”
Katharine Mooney, director of Wellness and Prevention Services at Boston University (where the study was conducted), echoed these concerns and added, “One of the things we work really hard to educate students about [is] standard drink [portions]. A standard beer has the same alcohol content as one shot. A student needs to be particularly aware of what she is consuming when drinking these so that she doesn’t drink more than she intends to.”
Cheap Way to Get Drunk, Students Say
Educating students about the risks associated with binge drinking and how to avoid excessive drinking is prudent, and reducing access to such drinks may help to bring binge-drinking rates down. However, students interviewed for news stories about the study commented that they consumed these beverages specifically because of how drunk they enable one to get without spending too much, and were generally aware of the associated risks.
While sugary drinks in large containers undoubtedly make it easier to abuse alcohol, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that people, underage or not, develop problems with alcohol because of poor coping mechanisms for things like stress and depression, or as a result of existing mental health problems. The choice to consume flavored, oversized drinks is simply the consequence of the underlying psychological issues, and to really make a dent in binge drinking rates, we also need to ensure psychological support and treatment is widely available for underage (and of-age) drinkers.