Alcoholic energy drinks are receiving renewed scrutiny after Washington State health officials announced Monday that nine college freshmen from Central Washington University in Ellensburg were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko, a 23.5-ounce caffeinated beverage that has a 12 percent alcohol content—the amount found in about four beers, the Associated Press reports. The event prompted Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna to send a letter asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban high-alcohol energy drinks, which he says "present a serious threat to public health and safety." Several other states are considering outlawing the drinks on their own.
In a statement Monday, Phusion Projects Inc., which makes the drink, said: "No one is more upset than we are when our products are abused or consumed illegally by underage drinkers...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, and possibly illicit substances, were consumed as well."
The incident in Washington is not the first of its kind, U.S. News contributor Nancy Shute reports.
Alcoholic drinks laced with caffeine are increasingly popular on college campuses and among underage teen drinkers, probably because the caffeine in brands like Four Loko, Joose, and Liquid Charge makes it possible to stay awake and keep on partying without having to stop to mix a Red Bull and vodka.
But law enforcement types such as state attorneys general have been pushing to get jazzed-up malt liquors and vodkas banned, arguing that these drinks are dangerous and are often marketed to the under-21 crowd.
It looks like the Food and Drug Administration thinks caffeinated alcohol drinks are a bad idea, too. FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein announced in November 2009 that the agency is investigating the safety and legality of mixing caffeine and alcohol in a single product. He told 30 manufacturers of juiced hooch that they have 30 days to explain why they think these products are safe. The scarcely veiled threat is that the FDA can ban caffeinated alcoholic drinks under existing law that bars dangerous food additives. Or it could require manufacturers to reveal how much caffeine is in each drink. My bet is that they'll go for an outright ban.
Responding to pressure from the state attorneys general, big brewers Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors agreed last year to yank caffeine, guarana, and other additives marketed as performance-enhancers from their brews. But smaller companies have filled the gaps left by the decaffeination of Sparks and the demise of Bud Extra, which was marketed with the line: "Who's up for staying out all night?"
Drinkers have been trying to sober up with caffeine for eons, of course, but science has shown that strategy fails: An awake drunk is just as dangerous and stupid as a drowsy drunk. Mark Fillmore, a researcher at the University of Kentucky, found that students who drank caffeine along with alcohol rapidly recovered their ability to respond quickly, but they still made as many errors as decaf drunks. And researchers at Wake Forest University found that students who mix caffeine and alcohol were more likely to get injured, to get in a car with a drunk driver, or to be involved in nonconsensual sex.
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