Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Loco for Four Loko.

Amid the growing popularity of alcoholic energy drinks among college students and a recent string of student hospitalizations, both state liquor boards and university officials moved to ban the beverages.

The US Food and Drug Administration recognized these actions by announcing on Nov. 17 that caffeine in malt liquor drinks is an “unsafe food additive” and requesting that four major companies, including Four Loko maker Phusion Projects, remove the substance from their products to prevent seizure of their products.

Speculation over the drinks’ safety skyrocketed after several students at Central Washington University were hospitalized on Oct. 9 at an off-campus party. “Comments by students initially made were that people were ‘roofied’ and that students were warned to ‘stay away from the red cups,’” said Cle Elum Police Chief Scott Ferguson.

“The nine students were hospitalized with blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.123 percent to 0.35 percent,” Ferguson said. “A BAC level of about .30 is considered to be lethal.”

One female student, sickened after consuming the drinks, was hospitalized in critical condition for more than 24 hours while the others were released overnight.

“The toxicology report showed that students were mixing the Four Lokos with other alcohol contents,” he said. “But the other students who drank just mixtures of rum and coke or other drinks were not the ones being hospitalized.”

Four Loko, which contains caffeine, taurine, guarana and alcohol, is typically sold in a 23.5-ounce can with 12 percent alcohol by volume -- or about four to six beers. They’re cheap, too: Each can runs at about $2.50.

Kimberly Caldeira, associate director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland, explained that aside from high or lethal BAC levels, another concern about mixing caffeine and alcohol is the “wide-awake drunk” reaction.

“This is when all of the impairments to judgment and decision-making and reaction time are still there, but the caffeine masks them and you don’t notice them [impairments] as much, she said. “Essentially, this can cause students to drink more and more and have a risk of alcoholic poisoning.”

On Oct. 25, CWU President James L. Gaudino announced at a press conference that alcoholic energy drinks would be banned on the campus, according to the university’s Web site.

But it wasn’t long before the Washington State Liquor Control Board stepped in and revealed a statewide ban on alcoholic energy drinks.

The liquor board enacted the ban on Nov. 18, one day after the FDA’s decision, said WSLCB spokesman Brian Smith. In regards to reversing the ban once the caffeine is taken out of the beverages, he said: “The Board will review the new formulations and act on those soon.”

When asked about the long gap between the CWU hospitalizations and the ban nearly one month later, he explained that the “toxicology reports were only revealed about two weeks ago, which confirmed that the cause was not date rape drugs, but rather Four Loko with a combination of hard alcohol.”

Washington state was soon joined by Michigan, which became concerned after a Michigan girl said she drank a Four Loko mixed with rum before being sexually assaulted, said Andrea Miller, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

The incident prompted the commission to ban 55 alcoholic energy drinks, including Four Loko. “The ban will stop sales of the 55 drinks at statewide beer and wine stores, liquor stores, bars and any restaurants,” Miller said.

“The commission announced the ban on Nov. 4, but it won’t take effect until Dec. 3 at midnight,” she explained before adding that the ban hasn't changed, even with the FDA's decision.Although the beverages could eventually be sold without the caffeine contents, Miller said, “The commission won't automatically approve it unless the labeling is fixed.”

Many have argued that the actual can resembles an energy drink, just with small print noting the alcohol content levels, which may mislead users to underestimate the drink’s potency.

Sam Gogan, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maryland, disagreed.
“To me, [Four Loko] doesn't look like an energy drink since it's grouped together with other alcoholic beverages,” he said. ”I knew the first time I had one that there was alcohol in it.”

“It’s ridiculous that people don’t know their own limits and now this ban is causing everyone else’s fun to be ruined,” said Barbara Sparklin, a 21-year-old senior at Salisbury University.

Sparklin said she would continue to buy the drinks even without the caffeine because “you can pay just 5 dollars [about 2 cans of Four Loko] to have a good time.”

Nikolaj Birman, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland and a frequent buyer of Four Loko, certainly knows his limits when it comes to consuming the drink.

“I drink one can to feel good, two cans if I want to get crazy, and three cans if I don't want to remember the night,” he said.

After drinking the first Four Loko, Birman added, “I always talk about how I feel like I'll have a heart attack if I have another one.”

Four Loko maker Phusion Projects argued against the claims that its drink has caused many to become ill, especially after the CWU incident. The company compared its alcohol-caffeine mixture to “having coffee after a meal with wine, or consuming rum and cola, an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka,” which its Web site claims are all popular practices.

That explanation, however, did not convince the FDA.

”The FDA said peer-reviewed studies suggest that the consumption of beverages containing added caffeine and alcohol is associated with risky behaviors that may lead to hazardous and life-threatening situations,” according to the Nov. 17 press release.
The CWU hospitalizations may have proved just that.

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