Four Loko ban fuels buying binge

The manufacturer of popular caffeinated alcohol drink Four Loko said Tuesday it will remove the caffeine from its products, pulling the blend off the market just as the Food and Drug Administration is poised to ban it.
By Jenna Johnson and Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 8:24 PM

While federal officials announced plans this week to outlaw alcoholic energy drinks like Four Loko, five 20-somethings living in a Columbia Heights group house hatched a plan of their own: Anytime someone sees Four Loko for sale, buy as much as possible.

The housemates have only a half-dozen cans so far, but they are hoping to stockpile several dozen. Then, once the caffeinated version of beverage is formally pulled from shelves and no longer sold legally, they will host a massive Four Loko party.

"We will be the last earthlings to enjoy the taste of Four Loko," said Tom Grahsler, 26, whose favorite flavors are watermelon and fruit punch. "I'm pretty sad to see it go."

In a series of high-profile incidents, dozens of college students have been treated for alcohol poisoning after overindulging in Four Loko and similar products, and several states and universities then banned the drinks. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been one of the most vocal opponents of the potent drinks, calling them "dangerous and toxic brews."

Experts say that the high levels of both alcohol and caffeine in the beverages create a "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. That puts them at increased risk for alcohol poisoning, engaging in such risky behavior as driving drunk and committing or being the victims of sexual assaults.

On Wednesday, several federal agencies responded aggressively, telling four manufacturers to stop distributing the products within the next two weeks. The Food and Drug Administration deemed the alcoholic energy drinks unsafe and illegal.

Four Loko, the most popular of the bunch, has been nicknamed "blackout in a can." The colorful 23.5-ounce cans contain as much alcohol as several beers and as much caffeine as a strong cup of coffee - all for about $2.50. The makers of Four Loko have already agreed to remove caffeine and other substances from the product.

News of the impending ban has raised awareness of the dangers of mixing alcohol with caffeine - and prompted mockery from college students who disagree with the decision. A YouTube video shows people how to make their own Four Loko using an energy drink, caffeine tablets, Jolly Rancher candy and malt alcohol. Some fans changed their Facebook profile photos to tributes proclaiming, "Viva la Vida Loko" and "Save Loko."

"It's amazing how people have come together around this," said Greg Gerlach, an American University sophomore who has stockpiled more than 50 cans of Four Loko.

Gerlach, an economics major, understands the forces of supply and demand - and he hopes to make some quick cash off the ban.

"I can buy it for around $2 a can, and as stores sell out, people are willing to pay more," said Gerlach, who said he was 21. "People know I'm selling it. Everyone knows I'm obsessed with this stuff."

Several liquor stores near American and Georgetown University reported a surge in Four Loko sales Wednesday and Thursday. Foggy Bottom Grocery, near the George Washington University campus, also saw a bump in sales, said owner Kris Hart, who planned to pull the product from his shelves Thursday afternoon. He said he's opposed to the drink because it's clearly marketed to young people, who often don't realize that drinking a can of Four Loko is not like having a standard drink.

Hart said he carried the product so he could compete with the numerous other liquor stores near campus. He said he has been meeting with university and city officials since October, begging them to ban the product from all stores.

"There was an absolute demand. Kids would come in for a four-pack of Four Loko, a case of beer and maybe some sandwiches," he said. "I'm thrilled that they are banning it. ... I know my competitors are stocking up on it just in case there's a run on it, just in case it becomes like Prohibition."

And there are still people out there who have not tried Four Loko - like Amanda Foster.

"There was so much in the media about it that I wanted to try it," said Foster, 28, who works in government affairs for a corporation in the District. "Now I'm set on trying it because it's going to be banned forever."

A few of Foster's friends are hosting a "Four Loko tasting party" Saturday night, and one of the organizers visited several liquor stores Thursday afternoon to buy up more than 50 cans of the drink in all eight flavors. Chances are it won't be the only Four Loko party raging this weekend.

"It's the end of an era," said Joey Maier, 21, a junior at American. "This was the drink of the semester."

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