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Do Jello Shots Lead to Bingeing by Underage Drinkers?

SPH study finds users “significantly more likely to drink heavily”

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An internet search for “jello shots” brings up thousands of recipes for the alcohol-infused gelatin that has become a staple of college life.

American singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer claims to have invented the jello shot in the 1950s to circumvent restrictions on alcoholic beverages at the Army base where he was stationed. But a recipe for an alcoholic gelatin drink called “punch jelly,” found in How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion, dates from 1862. It reads: “The strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatin, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.”

A recent study led by School of Public Health researcher Michael Siegel has attempted to gauge just how popular the gelatin drink is among underage drinkers. Published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, the study found that about one in five underage young people reported consuming alcoholic jello shots in the past 30 days—and that those who did were more likely to binge drink, to drink more alcohol, and to have been involved in physical fights related to drinking than others their age who did not consume jello shots.

Siegel, an SPH professor of community health sciences, and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Fiorente Media, Inc., of Boston used a national sample of 1,031 youths, ages 13 to 20, to assess consumption of jello shots during the past 30 days. Theirs is the first study seeking to gauge the extent of jello shot consumption among underage youths.

Siegel says he and his colleagues became interested in jello shots because they believe the shots may contribute to the initiation of alcohol use among novice drinkers “through use of a recognizable, widely available, appealing product such as jello as a channel for alcohol consumption.”

The study found the prevalence of jello shot consumption in the past month among the underage drinkers sampled was 20.4 percent—slightly higher for females than males. There were no significant differences by age, race, or region found—but there was a trend of increasing use of jello shots with lower levels of household income, as well as a higher prevalence among those without access to the internet.

The study found that jello shot users were “significantly more likely to drink heavily” than those who did not imbibe shots, drinking alcohol 2.2 days more a week, on average, than nonusers. The average number of alcoholic beverages drunk a month for jello shot users was also significantly higher, at 30.9 drinks a month, compared to an average of 18.8 drinks a month for nonusers.

Jello shot consumption also was significantly associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in physical fighting when drinking, the study found. A total of 18.7 percent of jello shot users reported getting into a physical fight after drinking alcohol, compared to 9.5 percent of nonusers.

The most common types of alcohol used in jello shots were reported as bourbon and vodka. Although the survey did not specifically ask what brand of alcohol was used in the shots, the most common bourbon brand among youths who reported using bourbon in their shots was Jack Daniels, and the most common vodka brands reported were Smirnoff and Absolut.

The authors say their findings have several important public health implications—namely, that national agencies and organizations should consider adding jello shot consumption to their youth alcohol use surveillance systems.

Siegel says that while the researchers could not conclude that jello shot consumption was the cause of heavier drinking among youths, such consumption “appears to be associated with riskier patterns of alcohol use and increased risk of adverse consequences, suggesting that specific interventions to address this consumption may be warranted as part of the effort to reduce risky alcohol use among youths.”

He and his coauthors recommend further research to clarify the causal relationship between jello shot consumption and risky patterns of drinking, and to explore which brands are most popularly used in preparing the shots.

The study, coauthored by Siegel, Ashley Galloway (SPH’13), Craig S. Ross of Fiorente Media, Inc., and Jane Binakonsky and David H. Jernigan of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.

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