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Originally published Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Alcohol poisoning killed student; aunt says energy drinks had role

Acute alcohol poisoning caused the death of a Washington State University freshman early Saturday, according to the Whitman County coroner. But an aunt of Kenny Hummel, 18, said at a Wednesday news conference in Seattle that consumption of caffeinated energy drinks contributed to the death of her nephew, who grew up in Lynnwood.

Seattle Times staff writer

What the autopsy shows so far is that Kenny Hummel, 18, a freshman at Washington State University, died early Saturday from acute alcohol poisoning. He had been found in a dorm room, unresponsive.

Hummel's blood-alcohol level exceeded 0.4 percent, said Peter Martin, Whitman County coroner. That's five times the legal limit for driving and "in the lethal range," he said.

It was 2:30 a.m. when friends found him, and campus police say he had started drinking Friday evening.

Hummel grew up in Lynnwood. At WSU, he had left the family nest.

Since August, said WSU spokesman Darin Watkins, four students have drunk so much that they stopped breathing and had to be revived at Pullman Regional Hospital with a tube placed down their throats.

And, said Watkins, as he reviews the WSU police reports for each weekend he sees between one and three cases in which students who've overdosed on alcohol are taken to the hospital for detoxification.

On Wednesday at a Seattle news conference, Hummel's aunt, Lea Ann Easton, a Portland attorney, said that drinking a number of containers of a caffeinated energy drink also played a role in his death.

Without the extra pep from such a drink, said Easton, instead of consuming more alcohol, her nephew "would have puked and passed out."

The coroner is sticking by his conclusion. "It's a provocative argument that energy drinks keep you awake so you can continue to keep drinking," said Martin. "But from our standpoint, the sole cause of death was the alcohol."

He said he would ask the state's toxicology lab about testing for the amount of caffeine in Hummel's system, but didn't know if that was doable. Martin said he wouldn't know toxicology results for at least two weeks.

It's not even clear how much 5-Hour Energy Hummel consumed.

One empty container was found in the dorm room along with some unopened ones, said Steve Hansen, WSU assistant police chief.

"I'm not saying he didn't have others someplace else," Hansen said.

Easton said her nephew's classmates told her he'd had several of the energy drinks Friday evening, along with hard alcohol.

What is clear is that at WSU and other colleges, alcohol abuse has become such a problem that the schools have instituted programs to bring home the problem to freshmen.

Many research papers link energy drinks with alcohol abuse at college.

A 2007 Wake Forest University School of Medicine paper about "Caffeinated Cocktails" concluded that almost one-quarter of college drinkers reported mixing alcohol with energy drinks, and that these students "had dramatically higher rates of serious alcohol-related consequences" such as "serious injury, sexual assault, drunk driving, and death."

Another researcher on energy drinks and boozing is Cecile Marczinski, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University. In an interview, she said a container of 5-Hour Energy contains the equivalent of a cup of coffee, which might not seem that much.

But, said Marczinski, "You get that shot of caffeine in two swallows, in 10 seconds, instead of the three-quarters of an hour or hour you spend drinking a cup of coffee."

That jolt of caffeine, she said, "makes it an easy way to heighten the effect of the alcohol — feeling euphoric, stimulated."

Efforts to contact a 5-Hour Energy spokeswoman were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, students at the residence hall where Hummel lived are planning a memorial Thursday. The university also announced it was forming a task force on "student alcohol issues."

Easton described Hummel as a "typical college kid." He played golf, football and baseball. He was friendly and, within a short time at college, she said, "he knew friends for life."

Hummel had 1,136 friends on his Facebook page.

His parents, Lisa and Bill Hummel, were out of town visiting friends in Oklahoma City when notified of his death, said his aunt.

Easton said she drove to the family's Lynnwood home to be with Hummel's younger siblings, Cassie, a junior in high school, and Lucas, a ninth-grader.

"It was the worst moment of my life," said Easton.

News researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed. Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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