Red alert for Red Bull

Some say combining Red Bull with vodka lets them party longer
and stronger, but the drink could be harmful.
Sunday, March 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:22 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Drinking Red Bull and vodka may have its perks, but drinkers could be headed for a fall — and not just off a barstool.

Wings are not the only thing Red Bull promises its drinkers. Intense energy boosts and increased alertness are among the other promised effects that entice many to this pick-me-up king. Just add a large dose of caffeine, a dash of vitamins and a ton of sugar, and you have the recipe for vitality packed neatly in an 8-ounce can.

Athletes use it to gain a competitive edge. For students facing an all-nighter at the library, Red Bull is often the drink of choice.

On college campuses and in bars and nightclubs across the country, mixing Red Bull and vodka has become a popular way to prolong a night on the town. Regular drinkers of Red Bull and vodka say no other drink keeps the party going longer or their energy stronger.

Amanda Wobbe, an MU senior loyal to Columbia’s bar scene, drinks five or six of these power cocktails on a typical night out and loves the energizing effect they seem to give.

“I have a tendency to lag off when I drink, so the Red Bull just keeps me up partying longer,” said Wobbe, a native of Belleville, Ill.

Wobbe is not alone in boasting of the Herculean effects of Red Bull and vodka. Others acknowledge similar benefits and say that taste is also a factor.

Pat O’Brien, an MU senior and a regular at Quinton’s, prefers Red Bull to other mixed drinks because the energy drink is not as sweet and syrupy as cocktails mixed with soda.

“It tastes so much better, and I don’t get tired as early,” he said. “It’s like there’s no concept of time — I just keep drinking.”

For those who can’t stand the taste of alcohol but drink it anyway, Red Bull masks the flavor of the vodka, which makes for an “easier” intoxication, said Wobbe.

“It just goes down like water, which makes for a really good drinking experience,” she said.

Good experience or not, the caffeinated cocktail doesn’t come cheap. Red Bull and vodka typically costs $7 a glass at Columbia bars, but the hefty price hasn’t seemed to hurt its popularity.

Bartenders at Quinton’s and Campus Bar and Grill ranked Red Bull and vodka among the top three drinks ordered by patrons and estimated going through 75 to 100 cans of Red Bull on a busy night.

Quinton’s even has a Red Bull and vodka special on Friday nights where drinkers can get their energy fix for just $5.

“We attract a big crowd on Fridays because it’s such a good price,” said Quinn Shortal, a Quinton’s bartender.

Red Bull and all of its pick-me-up promises do not come without a price, though, and the cost hits more than just the wallet as the night goes on. Longer nights of partying mean greater doses of alcohol that turn a laid-back night out on the town into a drinking marathon.

“It’s a dangerous combination,” said Kim Dude, director of MU’s Wellness Resource Center. “They’re so hyped up on the stimulant that it disguises the impact the alcohol is having.”

Others can experience jitters and anxiety because of Red Bull’s stimulating effects on the heart and blood pressure. Kristi Read, a 21-year-old MU student, has tried the drink a few times but never liked the experience.

“I feel really uncomfortable and on edge whenever I drink it, so I don’t really understand the appeal,” she said.

Blackouts have also been reported as a result of the marathon drinking often aided by Red Bull.

“I definitely feel more awake and coherent while drinking it, but the next day I often have trouble remembering the night,” said Cassie Brammer, an MU student from Lee’s Summit.

Although Red Bull loyalists are willing to risk a case of the jitters or an occasional blackout, public health experts question the safety of mixing a stimulant like Red Bull with depressant such as alcohol.

At Brown University, researchers have studied the effects of combining energy drinks and alcohol. According to Frances Mantak, director of health education at Brown, drinkers who mix the two substances together are doing two drastically different things to their bodies. Red Bull makes people feel more awake, but vodka slows down the central nervous system.

The results, Mantak said, can be dangerous.

“The stimulant effects can mask how intoxicated you really are and prevent you from realizing how much alcohol you have consumed,” she said.

Fatigue is one of the body’s signals for when you’ve had too much to drink, but Red Bull and other energy drinks reverse this signal, allowing for more consumption.

“A person who’s been drinking Red Bull and vodka won’t have as much inhibition and will keep drinking because they are missing the signals their body is putting off,” said Dennis Miller, an assistant psychology professor at MU who has taught a course on how drugs affect behavior.

Miller added that Red Bull and other energy drinks can give users the impression they are unimpaired, which could lead to more drinking or driving under the influence.

“They may think they are alert, but their reaction time is still diminished, and their judgment is impaired,” he said.

Once the stimulant effects of the Red Bull wear off, the body is left with the depressant effects of the alcohol, which could cause respiratory depression or vomiting while unconscious.

A final danger, Mantak said, is the extreme dehydration the combination causes.

Caffeine is a diuretic, and Red Bull has two times the amount of caffeine as a can of Coke. Mix that with the dehydrating effects of alcohol, and it hinders your body’s ability to metabolize the vodka and increases its toxicity — not to mention the killer hangover it leaves the next day.

When asked about the harmful effects of the drink, most Red Bull and vodka drinkers interviewed said they were aware of some potential dangers but tended to mention the combination’s possible adverse effects on the heart.

Although the high doses of caffeine in every Red Bull — a jittering 80 milligrams — could potentially affect a drinker’s heart, Miller said that cardiac damage is unlikely if the cocktail is drunk in moderation.

However, he does think Red Bull should include a warning label on its can stressing the high amount of caffeine in the drink.

Mantak agrees, calling Red Bull’s marketing misleading because it promotes a caffeine- and sugar-rich drink as a healthy stimulant.

“People’s perceptions about the drink are inaccurate,” she said. “They think it is healthy, but they don’t realize how much caffeine is really in it.”

Red Bull’s lofty promises listed on the can claim that the drink “improves performance — especially during times of stress or strain — increases concentration and improves reaction speed and stimulates the metabolism.”

Such claims can lead to misconceptions about its effects when mixed with alcohol. Some people assume that the increased metabolism will help them process the alcohol faster, but Mantak said this simply isn’t true.

“The way Red Bull is promoted leads to its use with alcohol,” she said.

A Red Bull spokeswoman offered a different explanation. The choice of mixing its drink with alcohol is up to the consumers, said Patrice Radden.

“Red Bull is promoted wherever people may want an energizer. This includes clubs and bars along with sports environments, businesses, gas stations and many other places,” she said. “We do not promote Red Bull Energy Drink as a mixer with alcohol as this might impair the positive effects of the drink as advertised. However, we have found no indication that Red Bull has any effect, positive or negative, related to alcohol consumption.”

Although the Red Bull public relations department claims otherwise, bartenders and drinkers alike say that Red Bull is very much linked with vodka and other alcoholic beverages.

“It was an amazing marketing ploy,” said Guy Clow, a Heidelberg bartender. “Red Bull’s marketing tactics and the way they placed themselves in bars changed the way that people drink — that fascinates me.”

At Heidelberg and other Columbia bars, a steady supply of Red Bull beckons from its own lit mini-fridge on an overhead shelf, bedecked with the energy drink’s trademark of two charging red bulls.

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