Joaquín Alcaraz Gracia had just won the annual drinking contest in the Spanish region of Murcia. He triumphantly raised the trophy—but then started to vomit. Well, drinking six liters (1.58 gallons) of beer in 20 minutes will do that to you. Sadly, it can also do a lot more to you, and Gracia learned this lesson the hard way. After passing out and being taken to the hospital, his vital signs became very weak and he soon died. His death is a tragedy, but it means that more people will hear this story and learn the lesson before risking their own lives in a similar way. Drinking contests can seem like harmless fun, but when they go too far, they quickly take a downward spiral that can lead to comas and potential deaths.
The Contest and the Rules
The drinking contest is a regular component of a huge annual festival in Murcia, in the Gea y Truyols district. The rules are pretty simple: you have 20 minutes to drink as much beer as you can. While many drinking contests may have more of an endurance element, where the prize is awarded to the person who drinks the most beer over a long period of time, this one was all about the speed.
Joaquín Gracia was called “obese” by the emergency officials at the scene, which gives him the inherent ability to consume more alcohol than somebody of average weight (because body weight is intrinsically tied to your blood alcohol content, as we’ll learn later). However, after the monumental amount of alcohol he consumed, even his body wasn’t able to handle it. He started vomiting, having to be held upright by other attendees after winning, and soon fell asleep. When paramedics arrived, they found that he was in cardiac arrest. The situation looked worse when he reached the hospital and he died shortly after his arrival.
All festivities were suspended following the event, and the local government called an official three-day mourning period to commemorate his passing. The incident inevitably casts doubt on the future of the contest, but the local mayor, José Gracia, defended the competition’s long tradition and pointed out that the cause of death was unknown. It’s impossible to doubt that other factors may well have played a part (extremes of weight—in either direction—are very dangerous indeed), but assuming that the enormous amount of alcohol he consumed wasn’t the “final bullet in the chamber,” so to speak, is absurd.
Alcohol poisoning is a real risk when you consume large amounts of alcohol. How drunk you are is measured by your blood-alcohol content, which depends on several factors, the most important of which are gender, body weight, food you’ve already eaten, and how quickly you’re drinking. Gender and body weight matter for essentially the same reason: alcohol is diluted by water, so it lowers your blood-alcohol content if you have more water in your body. Women generally have more body fat (which doesn’t absorb alcohol as well) than water content, and larger people carry more water to dilute the alcohol. In other words, slim women can drink a lot less than hefty men. The food you’ve already eaten basically means the alcohol has to “wait” for it to be digested before being transported to the blood stream, which generally means it trickles through more slowly. Speed of drinking and the amount of food you’ve eaten basically matter for the same reason: if the alcohol gets to you slower, you’ll have less in your blood at any one time. Drinking all at once or on an empty stomach both lead to a deluge of alcohol on the system.
Generally speaking, when your blood-alcohol content reaches 0.25 – 0.30 percent or higher, you are at serious risk of dying. You can choke on your own vomit (your gag reflex becomes impaired when you’re very drunk) or you could simply be killed as a result of alcohol poisoning. When it gets higher than this, you can go into a coma, have your breathing and heartbeat slow to dangerous levels, and ultimately die. You can check your blood-alcohol level using online calculators, although this is only a vague assessment based on limited information. Using this calculator, if a man of average North American weight (180 pounds) drank the same amount as Joaquín Gracia over the same time period, his blood alcohol content would be around 0.34 percent; in other words, well within alcohol poisoning and death territory.
A Stark Warning for Colleges and Bars Across America
Drinking a lot of alcohol isn’t a skill. All you need is a mouth, the ability to hold back your vomit (for a while) and a self-destructive attitude. Sadly, many people expose themselves to risks like Joaquín Gracia did because they associate drinking a lot with being masculine or somehow impressive, when in reality it is far from it. Drinking competitions, almost by definition, are staged for excessive and outright dangerous drinking.
College students and other drinkers inclined to participate in a contest should heed this warning very clearly, because even keeping track of your likely blood=alcohol level isn’t enough. Such drinking calculators wouldn’t have necessarily put Gracia in the “possible death” category (depending on his actual weight), but he died nonetheless. This is because there is a complex interplay of factors that determine what will happen to you when you drink to excess. These can’t be calculated in a couple of minutes, so don’t take the chance.