Party intensifies fears about alcohol energy drinks

By Shannon Dininny
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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 concern about the hazards of the beverages.

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 Administration 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, said the university's police chief, Steve Rittereiser said.

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

Phusion Projects 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.

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