Four Loko in Crosshairs

Incident raises concerns about caffeinated alcoholic drinks; blame misplaced, maker says

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Investigators are linking energy drinks with alcohol to the hospitalization of nine college students after a party in Roslyn, Wash., on October 9. The investigation concluded that no students were given drugs or alcohol without their knowledge and that no sexual assault occurred. And it has put caffeinated alcoholic beverage Four Loko unfairly in the crosshairs of university officials and state attorneys general, the company that makes the beverage said.

Central Washington University (CWU) president James L. Gaudino said the blood alcohol levels of the [image-nocss] hospitalized students ranged from .123 to .35. A blood alcohol concentration of .3 is considered lethal. Each student had consumed caffeinated malt liquor; some had used it with other alcohol.

The investigation revealed that students drank caffeinated malt liquor, rum, vodka and/or beer at the party. No students said they had been given alcohol or drugs without their knowledge. No sexual assault occurred and women were not "targeted." No drugs were found in the house. No connection was found between the color of plastic cups--used primarily to play a drinking game--and the students who became ill.

Phusion Projects LLC is a Chicago-based alcoholic beverage company that sells its products in 47 states. Its Four Loko and Four MaXed drinks combine alcohol with caffeine, guarana and taurine, while its Earthquake product is a noncaffeinated High Gravity Lager.
In a statement regarding the incident posted on the company's website, Phusion said, "No one is more upset than we are when our products are abused or consumed illegally by underage drinkers--and it appears that both happened in this instance. This is unacceptable. But so too is placing blame for the incident squarely on Four Loko when the police report, toxicology reports and witness testimony all show that other substances, including beer, hard liquors like vodka and rum...were consumed as well. In fact, while our product is mentioned only twice in the 44-page police report, hard liquor, vodka, rum or other alcohol is mentioned at least 19 times; beer is mentioned at least 3 times."

It added, "People have safely enjoyed mixing alcohol and caffeine products for years in their homes, and in restaurants and bars. Having coffee after a meal with wine, or consuming rum and cola, an Irish coffee or a Red Bull and vodka are all popular practices. Our products contain less alcohol than an average rum and cola, less alcohol and caffeine than an average Red Bull and vodka and is comparable to having coffee after a meal with a couple glasses of wine.... Our products are not energy drinks, as they've been called--and when consumed responsibly, they are just as safe as any other alcoholic beverages."

And in a letter to retailers, Phusion said: "We are strong believers in the idea that the more people know about our products and how to enjoy them safely, the better off everyone will be. This is why we go above and beyond state and federal legal requirements to inform consumers and retailers that our products are alcoholic beverages."

"As you know, our cans feature seven different warnings about the product's alcohol content and the necessity of an ID for purchase. And we're proud to be the first caffeinated alcoholic beverage manufacturer to add 'WE ID' tags to our cans.

"We offer free, point-of-sale materials to stores selling our products that reinforce the importance of asking for identification when selling any alcoholic beverage.

"Our efforts are ones we want more parents, educators, consumers, distributors, retailers and regulators to know about and understand. This is why we house numerous materials on our website about our commitment to safe and responsible alcohol use."

Click hereto view the full Phusion statement about the CWU incident. Andclick here to view Phusion's full letter to retailers.As a result of the investigation, CWU announced that alcoholic energy drinks (AEDs) would be banned at CWU pending a thorough review of drug and alcohol education programs and policies and a study of the dangers associated with the drinks.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said he is renewing a push for a national restriction on the sale of caffeinated malt liquor and, barring action by the federal government, for a ban of the beverage in Washington state. McKenna sent a letter to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) notifying the agency about the results of the Roslyn investigation. The FDA is currently responding to a September 2009 letter from state attorneys general requesting that the agency examine whether the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is safe.

"It's time to bring an end to the sale of alcoholic energy drinks," said McKenna, who serves on the state's Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking. "They're marketed to kids by using fruit flavors that mask the taste of alcohol, and they have such high levels of stimulants that people have no idea how inebriated they really are. They're packaged just like nonalcoholic drinks, but include a dangerous dose of malt liquor."

According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, the FDA has registered 27 manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, from elite vodkas to fruit-flavored alcohol drinks with names like Liquid Charge, Max Fury and Torque, many of which also feature ingredients like ginseng, taurine and guarana, often described as stimulants.

In response to a 2008 lawsuit filed by consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, two major manufacturers of caffeinated energy drinks, Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co., agreed to take their beverages off the market.

Health experts say that caffeine suspends the effects of alcohol, allowing people to continue drinking long after they normally would have stopped consuming noncaffeinated alcohol.

Professor Ken Briggs, chair of CWU's Department of Physical Education, School & Public Health, said Four Loko is one of the most popular of the 25 or more alcoholic energy drinks on the market. According to Briggs, the caffeine and other stimulants allow a drinker to ingest larger volumes of alcohol without passing out.

The attorney general has been pressing the FDA to end the sale of alcoholic energy drinks. In 2010, the Office of the Attorney General endorsed and testified in support of House Bill 2804, which would have banned the beverages in Washington state. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tami Green (D), was requested by the Washington State Liquor Control Board. HB 2804 died in the Senate Rules Committee. McKenna said that if the FDA does not soon ban the sale of alcoholic energy drinks his office will again join the Liquor Control Board and the Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking in urging passage of the state ban on alcoholic energy drinks.