Colleges and states faced little public backlash over the last year when they initiated sweeping bans of caffeinated alcoholic beverages such as the notorious Four Loko, which had been tied to dozens of student hospitalizations.
But the University of New Hampshire apparently had a tougher time this week getting people behind its announcement that it would stop selling regular energy drinks on campus. It had such a tough time, in fact, that the institution couldn’t even get its own president behind the decision – which he reversed the very same day.
In Monday morning’s initial announcement, the university press release attributed the ban to UNH Dining, as part of the university’s “effort to further its mission to be the healthiest campus community in the country by 2020 and keep its students safe.” The release noted that a recent campus incident involving energy drinks “helped send a student to the hospital.” The university declined to comment further on the incident.
But Monday night, a second release said University President Mark Huddleston put the ban on indefinite hiatus, citing “conflicting evidence” in the drinks’ health effects, as well as the need to “involve students more directly” in the decision.
“In this case, I am personally aware of conflicting reports about the caffeine and sugar content of some of these beverages,” Huddleston said in the release, “and I want to be sure we respect our students’ ability to make informed choices about what they consume.”
As students began weighing in this week, while some of them appreciated the president’s consideration, they questioned the practicality of such a ban – and in some cases, the scope.
Of course, many students will argue that if they are truly going to have a choice on campus, the ban makes no sense at all. A.J. Coukos, New Hampshire’s student body president, personally couldn’t care less whether these products are available on campus – he doesn’t drink them. For those who do, though, the ban will be more a nuisance than anything else: the nearest off-campus convenience store is a 30-second to 20-minute walk, Coukos said, depending on where a student is on campus.
There’s technically nothing stopping the university from banning sales on campus. But, Coukos asked, at what point does the student become responsible for his or her own health?
“The university doesn’t have anything forcing them to continue to sell these products. They, in a sense, have a right to choose what to sell. But on the other side of the coin, they also should absolutely consider the students’ preference and the students’ ability to make their own choices about these products,” Coukos said. “Where does one draw the line? Is next coffee, then soda? I think [the university] saw that there was an issue with these energy drinks and it wanted to do something proactively, which in and of itself is a noble desire. But there is a very fine line right now, and people aren’t sure where it will be drawn.”
The editorial board of The New Hampshire, the university’s student newspaper, generally supported Huddleston’s intervention, but called it hypocritical. It criticized the university for targeting energy drinks even as a Dunkin’ Donuts prepares to open on campus.
“Students deserve the ability to make their own choices,” the board wrote. “We understand the dangers of combining alcohol and caffeine, and encourage students to better understand those dangers. But removing energy drinks from UNH shelves because of that would be an overreaction.”
Energy drinks are not new to criticism in higher education, but controversies have focused almost exclusively on drinks like Four Loko, which was involved in 23 hospitalizations at Ramapo College in New Jersey (and later, at other universities) before the president became the first to ban it. The Food and Drug Administration and several states eventually followed suit, only to have a similar drink pop up to meet demand.
The dangers of mixing alcohol and caffeine are well-documented. The combination of two products that dehydrate the body exacerbates the effects of the alcohol, but the caffeine can make a person feel more awake and thus less drunk than he or she actually is. Additional research has established links between the caffeinated alcohol concoctions and risky behavior such as drug use, smoking and binge drinking.
Twenty percent of students who participated in the New Hampshire Higher Education Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Survey last spring reported mixing alcohol and energy drinks in the past 30 days, the university said.
Red Bull didn’t respond to a request for comment, but told the Associated Press that the drink meets federal safety requirements. An 8.4 oz. can of Red Bull contains 80 mg of caffeine, compared to 35 mg in an 8 oz. can of soda. An 8 oz. cup of coffee contains an estimated 65 to 120 mg of caffeine, the company said.
“These drinks have a similar caffeine content as coffee and do not contain alcohol. Since it would not be right to ban the sale of soda, coffee, or tea on a college campus, it’s also inappropriate and unwarranted to single out and restrict the sale of energy drinks,” the statement said. “We are working with the University of New Hampshire to find a resolution.”
A 2007 study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that numerous health risks may stem from energy drinks, including caffeine overdose or intoxication, whose symptoms include anxiety, nervousness, tremors and, in rare cases, death. Caffeine withdrawal typically brings on a headache, but can also involve fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability and nausea. In one survey noted in the study, 30 percent of caffeine users met the criteria for substance dependence.
“The prevalence of caffeine dependence may increase as a result of marketing campaigns promoting the use of energy drinks among adolescents,” the study said. “By analogy with tobacco and alcohol use, the earlier the onset of smoking or drinking, the greater the risk for later dependence.” Red Bull commonly holds promotions on college campuses where the company gives away its product free.
Jessica Fruchtman, New Hampshire’s student body vice president, supports the spirit of the ban; she agrees that the drinks are unhealthful. But even if the university does stop selling the drinks, students won’t stop drinking them, she said: not only can they buy the product right off campus, but many of them don’t understand the health risks and so see no reason to abstain.
“It’s one of those issues where there’s obviously going to be two sides,” Fruchtman said. But, she added, “I personally tend to notice more people drinking coffee than energy drinks.”