Buckfast Tonic Wine has humble origins, brewed by Benedictine monks at Buckfast Abbey in Devon, UK, and yet hundreds of miles north the fortified wine has been labelled a scourge on the Scottish public. Known locally as ‘Bucky’, the drink has long been associated with violent and other anti-social behaviour, yet has resisted calls for it to be banned.

The US already has tight regulations surrounding caffeinated alcoholic beverages, and with Scotland’s ‘Buckfast problem’ not going away, is it time for the UK to emulate their approach?

An unsafe food additive?

Back in 2010, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came to the conclusion that the sale of beverages that contained pre-mixtures of both caffeine and alcohol were not as harmless as once thought.

After a number of studies and an investigation into several particularly infamous brands, such as ‘Four Loko’, the commission found that caffeine added to alcohol is not a substance ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’ (GRAS), and issued letters to four key manufacturers warning them that caffeine is an ‘unsafe food additive’ in strong alcoholic drinks, and requesting that they reformulate or cease sales. They also ruled that the packaging of such products was misleading, and an attempt at encouraging excessive consumption in younger customers.

Other countries have come to a similar conclusion, and also advocate a full or partial ban on caffeinated alcoholic beverages. For example, Canadian manufacturers are restricted to the addition of caffeine from natural sources, and in Mexico the drinks cannot be sold in bars and clubs. The UK has not implemented any such ruling though, with Scotland resisting a proposed ban in 2005.

While some defenders of the beverage highlight that Buckfast accounts for less than 0.5% of alcohol sales in Scotland, the drink has been linked to a disproportionately high number of crimes. In 2015 the Scottish Prison Service reported that more than 43% of inmates had consumed some quantity of Buckfast before their most recent offence.

Wide awake drunk

The University of Victoria, Canada, has carried out a multitude of studies over the past 35 years and in 2017 announced a link between alcohol mixed with energy drinks and increased risk of falls, fights and accidents.  The risk factors were not limited to caffeinated alcoholic beverages, but rather all drinks and cocktails mixing both alcohol and caffeine, such as vodka Red Bull, and Jägerbombs.

The researchers were unable to identify the size of the risk, and indicated that bigger studies were needed to identify risk to health generally, though study author Audra Roemer said “Usually when you’re drinking alcohol, you eventually get tired and you go home. Energy drinks mask that, so people may underestimate how intoxicated they are, end up staying out later, consume more alcohol, and engage in risky behaviour and more hazardous drinking practices.”

UK alcohol education charity Drinkaware calls this phenomenon ‘wide aware drunk’, and also highlights the physical and psychological side effects consumers experience, including heart palpitations, problems sleeping, and feeling tense or agitated.

The NHS, though, takes a more balanced and critical view of the Canadian research, stating that almost all studies into all studies into alcohol and energy drink consumption were online survey, and mostly targeted student populations outside of the UK.

Whether the UK government waits for more extensive surveys to be carried out or not, there is undoubtedly a link between caffeine, alcohol, health risks, and extreme behaviour. But whether Buckfast itself is the problem or just symptomatic of a larger alcohol and caffeine-fuelled issue is something that needs addressing in the near future.