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Campus illnesses intensify worries about high-alcohol energy drinks

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An investigation has determined it was a high-alcohol caffeinated drink called Four Loko, not date-rape drugs, that sickened Central Washington University students at a party on Oct. 8.

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By Shannon Dininny
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 8:49 PM

The revelation this week that sugary, high-alcohol energy drinks helped send nine Washington state college freshmen to the hospital after an off-campus party has renewed public attention on the hazards of the beverages.

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Several states have enacted or are considering limits or bans on the drinks, and at least two universities have banned them from campus while the Food and Drug Administratio reviews their safety.

The drinks are popular with college students who want to get drunk quickly and cheaply. The maker of one beverage linked to the Washington state party this month said that it markets its products responsibly to people of legal drinking age.

At that party, police officers found a chaotic scene, with students from Central Washington University passed out and so intoxicated that investigators thought they had overdosed on drugs.

Nine students who drank Four Loko, a caffeinated malt liquor, were hospitalized with blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.12 percent to 0.35 percent, and a female student nearly died, CWU President James L. Gaudino said. A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.30 percent is considered potentially lethal.

All the hospitalized students were inexperienced drinkers - freshmen ranging in age from 17 to 19. Toxicology results showed no drugs in their bloodstreams, although a small amount of marijuana was reported at the party, university police Chief Steve Rittereiser said.

Some students admitted drinking vodka, rum and beer with Four Loko.

Phusion Projects Inc. of Chicago, which makes Four Loko, said in a statement that people have consumed caffeine and alcohol together safely for years. It added that it shares college administrators' goal of making campuses safe and healthy environments.

"The unacceptable incident at Central Washington University, which appears to have involved hard liquor, such as vodka and rum, beer, our products, and possibly illicit substances, is precisely why we go to great lengths to ensure our products are not sold to underage consumers and are not abused," the statement said.

The FDA sent a warning letter to Phusion Products in November, asking it for information that shows adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages is safe. The case remains open, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Four Loko comes in several varieties, including fruit punch and blue raspberry. A 23.5-ounce can sells for about $2.50 and has an alcohol content of 12 percent, comparable to four beers, according to the company's Web site.

Health advocates say the caffeine in the drink can also suspend the effects of alcohol consumption, allowing a person to consume more than usual.

"It gets you really drunk really fast, and it gives you a lot of energy so you're not going to be laying down and sleeping," said 18-year-old CWU freshman Hyatt Van Cotthem of Everett, Wash., who said he's tried the beverage but doesn't drink it because he thinks the taste is "nasty."

He didn't attend the party, but he questioned whether the drink alone could have been to blame.

"There's no way that Four Loko caused all these people to just pass out," he said.

The sickened students have recovered and are back in class. No criminal charges have been filed, but Rittereiser said that officers are still investigating where the alcohol came from.

Gaudino banned alcoholic energy drinks from CWU's campus Monday. Last month, so did Ramapo College in New Jersey after several students' hospitalizations were attributed to Four Loko.

"It's not that we'd seen a lot of consumption, but we'd seen enough that it worried us, because it was in situations of extreme intoxication," Ramapo President Peter Mercer said Monday.

"Having seen no redeeming social use for it, and seeing the damage and danger it could pose, I ordered a ban," he added.

Mercer said he eagerly awaits the results of the FDA review and supports a measure to ban the drinks in New Jersey.

Utah and Montana have restricted the sale of the caffeinated malt liquors to state liquor stores. A bill to ban the drinks in Washington state failed in the legislature earlier this year, but Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) said she would support another effort.

Steven Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, said many states feel they need to act quickly on the issue because the drinks are increasing in popularity.

"There's really a sense that people consuming these drinks don't understand how much alcohol they are drinking," he said. "These products pack a punch, and they are relatively inexpensive."

- Associated Press


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