Reporter: Tara Brown
Producers: Stephen Rice, Ali Smith
It's the most dangerous of brews, a potentially lethal concoction of heavy spirits and high octane energy drinks.
Young people love the stuff, whether they buy it readymade or mix their own.
The alcohol gets them drunk and the energy drinks keep them awake.
It can be like knocking back half a dozen cups of coffee, except they're already buzzing from a skinful of booze.
The idea is to make the fun last longer. But there's nothing fun about landing in hospital. And that's far from the worst that can happen.
STORY – TARA BROWN: It’s late. But for a new generation of drinkers, the night is just beginning.
JESSICA: What are you drinking tonight?
SHIVORNE: I think, vodka and Red Bull.
TARA BROWN: On the Gold Coast, 21-year-old Jessica and 19-year-old Shivorne are ready to hit the clubs.
SHIVORNE: I like Elevate because it’s 8 percent.
JESSICA: And you get drunk quicker.
TARA BROWN: A marathon fuelled by a super-charged cocktail of alcohol and energy drinks. And in Sydney it’s a similar scene. Sisters Laura and Emily are out to drink the night away. Helped along by friends and their favourite alcohol energy drink – vodka and Red Bull and pre-mixed cans like Pulse. How many of these alcohol energy drinks would you consume?
EMILY: Like a busy weekend night or something when you’re going out, it’s probably not more than between five and ten.
TARA BROWN: Why do you drink them?
EMILY: They taste good and they’re just, like, so readily available in clubs and stuff these days. Yeah, it’s just more energising.
TARA BROWN: It’s one of the biggest changes to the nation’s drinking habits - alcohol, loaded with sugar and extra stimulants like caffeine, taurine and guarana. But it can be a recipe for disaster. Alcohol is a depressant. Caffeine is a stimulant. Mix too much of the two and your body literally freaks out. We pass out when we drink too much – that’s nature’s way of protecting us. But imagine having the equivalent of half a dozen espressos. You’re wired and so you can’t help but stay awake. And because caffeine masks the effects of alcohol, you’re drunk without even realising it and so you keep drinking more and more and more. And the consequences can be deadly, on our already violent streets. But you don’t even need to drink that much of the stuff to put your health, and your heart, at serious risk.
NEMMY: When the ambulance left her heart wasn’t beating.
TARA BROWN: Sara Milosevic was a healthy 16-year-old who lived with her mum and dad in the suburbs in Melbourne. In June last year, Sara and her friend Stephanie Aarsman, also 16, were off to a party. They asked an older friend to buy them cans of pre-mixed alcohol energy drinks.
TARA BROWN: So what sort of drinks did you get?
STEPHANIE: We got - each we got a four-pack of Pulse.
TARA BROWN: And does drinking Pulse taste like you’re drinking alcohol?
STEPHANIE: Not really, more like energy drinks.
TARA BROWN: Pulse is the classic alcohol energy drink – 6.5 percent alcohol, stacks of caffeine in the form of guarana and comparatively cheap.
TARA BROWN: So Sara started drinking them?
STEPHANIE: She’d probably skulled about two of them before we actually got to the party and was just starting her fourth before she started to feel a bit sick and started vomiting.
TARA BROWN: And how long was she sick?
STEPHANIE: She’d like stop, but then, like, it just kept going.
TARA BROWN: Sara’s mum and dad collected her. An hour later Sara was crying out in pain and her frantic parents called an ambulance. Her brother Nemmy will never forget that terrible night.
NEMMY: I woke to this knocking and I opened the door and I saw my parents but not my sister. And they said something’s happened to Sara, she’s in the hospital. And when we got there, they were still trying to resuscitate her, even after all the time had passed. Eventually they said they had to stop. And that was it.
TARA BROWN: Three drinks and Sara – this bright, bubbly, healthy young woman – was dead. For her family and friends it was – still is – impossible to believe.
STEPHANIE: I could always trust her and she could always trust me. We were always like together. She was amazing. I miss her a lot. So much.
TARA BROWN: And can you believe that she’s not here?
STEPHANIE: No. I still think I’m gonna see her at school.
TARA BROWN: An autopsy showed Sara had not taken any illicit drugs. But the pathologist noted fluid on her lungs, which can be caused by heart failure. The coroner has yet to rule on what caused Sara’s death. But her family is in no doubt.
NEMMY: The heart is an electric pump, it’s very complicated and very fragile. So having alcohol – a depressant - with all these various stimulants, the body gets confused as to what it should do.
TARA BROWN: Do you think Sara had any idea of the risk she was taking?
NEMMY: No. If that can had serious warnings, like cigarette packet warnings, she wouldn’t have drank.
TARA BROWN: The medical profession is in no doubt too about their dangers - it believes these pre-mixed drinks should be banned – as they have been in America.
BRUCE: We don’t want regulators to sit back and wait and see a disaster unfold for the young people of Australia. We think the time to act is now, that we need to take these products off the shelves.
TARA BROWN: Dr Bruce Bolam from VicHealth says the potential for serious harm is huge.
BRUCE: Very severe dehydration, potentially seizures, heart problems and ultimately hospitalisation. And we are seeing a rising number of cases of young people being hospitalised.
TARA BROWN: Young people might know the dangers but they prefer to listen to the marketing specifically targeting those out to party - like Laura and Emily. Do you think of them as being safe?
LAURA: Um not really.
EMILY: No, not really at all. It’s not good for you. It’s not ok, um - it’s just, I guess, it’s just the culture and that.
LAURA: Yeah, everyone we know drinks them.
EMILY: It’s just the way.
LAURA: It’s not a big deal.
TARA BROWN: Alicia Franklin discovered just how unsafe those drinks are when out celebrating a friends’ birthday party. How many drinks did you have?
ALICIA: Two Jager bombs and a can and a half of Pulse.
TARA BROWN: A Jager bomb is a shot of the powerful liqueur Jagermeister mixed with Red Bull. All up it’s not a big night by today’s standards. But it almost killed Alicia.
ALICIA: My heart was going so fast that I just stopped breathing. I actually stopped breathing when I collapsed as well, and they went to do CPR on me a couple of times.
TARA BROWN: Alicia was rushed to hospital, where doctors diagnosed a reaction to a minor heart defect. What did the doctors say about drinking these drinks, having a heart condition as you do?
ALICIA: Um, just said if it happens again Red Bull could literally give you wings - so I could potentially die if I’m silly enough to drink such an amount that I put myself in that situation.
TARA BROWN: But unbelievably she did - just a year later, on her 19th birthday, Alicia drank vodka and Red Bull again.
ALICIA: I was out dancing and then went outside to sit at a table and apparently just same story - just collapsed onto my friend’s shoulder, wasn’t breathing - apparently ambulances were called. It was terrifying the second time, cause it was a lot worse than the first.
TARA BROWN: So can I ask you why do you still drink these drinks?
ALICIA: Um, in all honesty, it’s not that I’m setting out - I don’t have a death wish or I’m not trying to be a rebellious young girl or anything. It’s just that when you go out, they are so popular because they do taste so nice and as well as that it is something that’s going to keep you awake.
TARA BROWN: No wonder the effect is called “wide awake drunk.” And no wonder the impact is being seen on the streets. As people drink more, many become more violent.
RIKKI: My son’s not the first or the last whose life is going to be taken over this. So how many lives is it going to take to change these regulations?
TARA BROWN: Do you have a favourite photo here?
RIKKI: This one. Sorry.
TARA BROWN: Oh are you alright? Poor thing. It’s so hard isn’t it? Rikki Arney is still tormented that late one night she let her 17-year-old son, Cameron Lowe, walk up the road with his brothers to get a hamburger. On their way home he was king-hit in the head by a highly agitated young man.
RIKKI: He was unconscious before he hit the road, so when he did hit the road, he hit with such a force that it cracked the back of his skull and he ended up having two brain haemorrhages. All from the impact of this one punch.
TARA BROWN: Cameron came to and managed to get home, apparently okay. When did you last see Cam?
RIKKI: Um, 2:30. He came in for a Panadol, said he had a headache, said he had an egg on his head. I didn’t understand why. I didn’t know he’d been hit. I felt his head, I couldn’t feel anything, it must have been the pressure building inside his brain, and I give him some Panadol and laid him down and that was the last time we were to see him. All because of one punch.
TARA BROWN: The young thug who killed Cameron is in gaol serving four years for manslaughter. The night he hit Cameron he’d drunk 16 cans of Pulse.
RIKKI: On these cans you can see that they have the smallest warning that you can barely read - but it does say there that consumption should not exceed more than one can per day.
TARA BROWN: What would you like to see on that can?
RIKKI: Well, if they’re that dangerous, why don’t they put a picture of an ambulance on there, honestly.
TARA BROWN: But there’s no action yet by Federal or State Governments except in Western Australia, where new laws prohibit alcohol energy drinks being served after midnight in clubs and pubs. In the meantime, manufacturers are creating more and stronger concoctions to the disgust of Sara Milosevic’s devastated family.
NEMMY: They have a responsibility - if their products are dangerous to take responsibility.
TARA BROWN: Your father describes the people who make these sorts of drinks as having blood on their hands.
NEMMY: If these drinks do impact people in a negative way then they do have blood on their hands.
TARA BROWN: It might be the wee hours but our girls are still out partying. They know they’ll pay for it in the morning – hopefully with nothing more than a bad hangover.
EMILY: Everybody knows the risks that they are taking.
TARA BROWN: Doesn’t that worry you?
EMILY: Yeah, it does.
TARA BROWN: Not enough to stop you drinking it?
EMILYL: No, probably not.
LAURA: Yeah, probably not.