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Energy drinks mixed with alcohol a growing concern among youth

Wednesday - 3/13/2013, 12:34pm  ET

The dangers of mixing vodka and Red Bull

WTOP's Paula Wolfson reports

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Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Mixing alcohol and energy drinks is a disturbing trend among college students, local health experts say, and there is a growing concern that younger siblings may follow their lead.

Lawrence D'Angelo, director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Division at Children's National Medical Center, calls the mix of energy drinks and alcohol -- like Red Bull and vodka -- a dangerous combination.

"The real worry for us is that it is going to filter down to even younger kids at the high school and junior high level," he says.

D'Angelo says drinking a beverage mixed with alcohol and caffeine is more dangerous for kids and teens because they are still developing and their bodies do not metabolize alcohol as well as adults.

He adds that the big problem with caffeinated drinks is that the caffeine hides the impact of the alcohol, so young people do not feel the effects immediately and drink more in a shorter period of time.

Scott Shapiro, assistant professor of medicine at George Washington University, explains mixing a stimulant and a depressant impedes the feeling of intoxication.

"When it comes to alcohol ingestion, when you combine it with a stimulant, you may mask some of the depressive symptoms of the alcohol, so people may not think they are as drunk as they are," he says.

Shapiro says that can lead to risky behavior.

"They may drive, they may think they are more alert and do things under the influence of alcohol that they may not do otherwise," he says.

In 2010, the FDA sent warning letters to four companies that make energy drinks with caffeine -- including the popular Four Loko -- saying that the caffeine was an "unsafe food additive." The companies removed the caffeine ingredient soon after.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is concerned about the issue and advises doctors to talk to their teenage patients about the risks posed by mixing caffeine and alcohol.

It's an idea that D'Angelo fully endorses. He says some teens may not listen, but he believes enough will get the message to make a difference.

Besides mixing alcohol and caffeine, he says teens should be warned about energy drinks in general. D'Angelo says they are a health problem, and hospitals are seeing more emergency visits as a result.

The number of emergency visits related to energy drinks doubled from 10,068 visits in 2007 to 20,783 visits in 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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