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FDA, FTC crack down on caffeinated alcoholic drinks

By Rob Stein and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:58 AM

Federal agencies moved aggressively Wednesday to eliminate from the market the potent alcoholic "energy" drinks spiked with caffeine that have become wildly popular on college campuses in recent years.

In letters to four companies, the Food and Drug Administration said it had concluded that adding caffeine to alcohol created "adulterated" products that were unsafe and illegal. If the companies do not take action within 15 days, the FDA could begin seizing the products or seek a court order barring companies from continuing to sell the products.

Simultaneously, Treasury Department officials announced that, based on the FDA's conclusion, the companies would be told that the products had been mislabeled and were, therefore, illegal to be shipped. And the Federal Trade Commission informed the same four firms that marketing their seven products risked violating federal law.

The drinks, sometimes called a "blackout in a can," contain high levels of alcohol and caffeine. The mixture creates a state of "wide-awake drunk" that makes it difficult for people to realize how intoxicated they are and enables them to consume far more alcohol than they otherwise would without passing out, officials said. That puts them at increased risk for alcohol poisoning, engaging in risky behavior such as driving drunk, and committing or being the victims of sexual assaults, they said. Consuming one can of Four Loko - the most popular product - has been compared to drinking five cans of beer and a cup of coffee.

Federal officials were facing increasing pressure to take action against the drinks in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents. Dozens of students at Central Washington University and Ramapo College in New Jersey, for example, recently were rushed to emergency rooms after consuming Four Loko, including some with alcohol poisoning and at least one near death. In other incidents, deaths and fatal car crashes have been blamed on the drinks.

"I call them killer cocktails," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who was among 18 attorneys general who had been pressing the FDA to take action for more than a year. "Young people have been dying after drinking this stuff. It's about time we're finally doing something about these dangerous drinks."

With the number of state bans increasing and the federal crackdown imminent, Phusion Projects of Chicago, which makes Four Loko and was one of the companies warned, announced Tuesday night that it was removing caffeine and other substances from all of its products. Federal officials said they were pleased by the announcement and would monitor the company to make sure it followed through quickly.

United Brands Co. of San Diego, which makes JOOSE, said the company disagreed with the FDA's "action and rationale, as well as the characterization of our products," had "seen no known reports of any health or safety incidents" involving its products and "will continue to produce quality products that meet the demands of our loyal adult consumers." However, the company said it would "continue engagement with alcohol regulatory bodies and legislators to ensure compliance with the latest guidance."

Charge Beverages Corp. of Portland, Ore., said it had already decided to discontinue making caffeinated drinks. New Century Brewing Co. of Boston did not respond to a request for comment.

While the move was praised by public health authorities, law enforcement officials and others, some criticized it as the latest example of the federal government being overly paternalistic, increasingly creating an intrusive "nanny state."

"The same legal argument could be used to ban everything from Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper to an array of popular candies and snacks that currently contain added caffeine," said Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "It's time the FDA started treating consumers old enough to purchase alcoholic beverages as adults."

Keiran Bleich, a junior at American University majoring in political science, voiced similar outrage.

"It's no longer Prohibition. It's no longer the 1920s. I think beverage distributors should be able to come up with creative drinks," Bleich said. "People are always looking for the next hot button issue, the next thing to ban."

Some experts, meanwhile, worried the move might backfire by making the drinks seem more appealing to rebellious young people.

"Some youth will take this as a challenge: 'Maybe most young people can't handle those drinks, which is why they banned them, but I am not like most people - I can handle it,' " Jeffrey T. Parsons, a professor of psychology at Hunter College, wrote in an e-mail. "Banning the pre-mix drinks is not going to stop people from figuring out how to combine energy drinks and alcohol on their own - and probably in even more dangerous quantities and combinations."

The FDA is also reviewing nonalcoholic energy drinks, but officials said no action on those were necessarily imminent.

Four Loko was a concoction of four main ingredients - caffeine; malt liquor; guarana, a South American plant whose seeds are rich in caffeine; and taurine, an amino acid that some think can boost athletic and mental performance - plus sugar and artificial flavoring. Guarana and taurine will also be removed, the company announced.

Four Loko, sold in 23.5-ounce brightly colored cans containing 12 percent alcohol for about $2.50 each, has been marketed aggressively in multiple fruit flavors on college campuses. The drinks and similar products have become the focus of parties on many campuses. Students and others use Web sites like fourlokostories.com to recount their intoxicated experiences.

Washington state, Oklahoma, Michigan and other states have banned the drinks, others have taken or are considering similar steps, and more could act based on the federal action. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) called on the state's alcohol industry Wednesday to immediately and voluntarily halt the distribution of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, saying they constitute a "clear public health and public safety threat." Officials in Virginia were mulling their options. The District had no plans to take any independent steps.

Under pressure from state attorneys general, several large brewers, including Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, stopped marketing caffeinated alcoholic products in 2008. But drinks produced by small brewers took off.

George Washington University has had at least two students who were taken to the hospital with alcohol poisoning after consuming the beverages, officials said.

"It's definitely the drink that people are like, 'I'm going to have one Four Loko before I go out," said Hayley Woodford, 18, a freshman English major who said she had never tried Four Loko. "It's very popular right now. Everyone is talking about it. It's always around."

"Any night that starts with Four Loko never ends well," said Cameron Neilley, 18, a freshman political science and history major. "It's so new that people don't know how much they can handle."

Aaron Kassraie, 19, a sophomore journalism major at American University, said Four Loko's biggest selling point was its caffeine and the "lively drunk" it promised.

"I would describe it, taste-wise, as motor oil," Kassraie said. "But people say it gets the job done."

Kassraie doubted a ban would keep students from caffeinating their booze.

"Even before the Four Loko craze," he said, "there was always the Red Bull-and-vodka craze."

steinr@washpost.com johnsonj@washpost.com

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