Four Loko, other alcoholic energy drinks deemed unsafe by FDA

Thursday, November 18, 2010 | 7:06 p.m. CST; updated 10:40 a.m. CST, Friday, November 19, 2010
Nicknamed "blackout in a can," Four Loko will no longer include its usual amount of caffeine, the equivalent of one 12-ounce cup of coffee in each 23.5 ounce can along with 12 percent alcohol. Many stores are also no longer selling the product.

COLUMBIA — MU junior Adam Elgin just wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.

Elgin, who turned 21 in March, heard about Four Loko on the news and decided to pick up a few cans of the drink with some friends two weekends ago.

“I heard about it on TV, and people were freaking out, so I wanted to see what the big deal was,” he said.

“One of them got us tipsy,” he said. “We felt like we were more rambunctious than we usually would be. And it didn’t really taste bad, except for the watermelon, which was pretty gross."

For Elgin, the price wasn't bad, either. "It's cheap. It's like $2.50 a can, way cheaper than buying a six-pack," he said.

But Four Loko isn’t going to be as "loco" as it used to be.

As of Tuesday, the beverage — nicknamed “blackout in a can” — won’t include the usual caffeine equivalent to one 12-ounce cup of coffee in each 23.5-ounce can along with 12 percent alcohol, according to the company distributor's website.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement Wednesday that said caffeine is an unsafe food additive to malt beverages and issued a warning to Phusion Projects, the makers of the popular alcoholic energy drink and to three other companies that make similar beverages.

HyVee stores have pulled Four Loko products off their shelves, and Jon Rieck, manager of wine and spirits at the West Broadway store, said he's not sure if the chain will carry the reformulated drink either.

Schnucks at Forum was still carrying the product on Thursday and hasn't received any notices to take it off the shelves, said Cory Poboll, assistant grocery manager. Poboll also said he's not sure when or if his store will be selling the new product.

Four Loko rose to national attention in early October when four Central Washington University students drank the beverage and needed to be hospitalized. The students had blood-alcohol levels ranging from o.12 to o.35, and when police officers first saw them, they suspected that they had been given date-rape drugs.

One of the issues raised in the FDA statement was that caffeine often masks the signs of intoxication, which then makes it difficult for people to tell how drunk they are. As a result, people often engage in riskier behavior than they would otherwise.

Denis McCarthy, director of the Alcohol Cognitions Lab at MU, said that's why the drink can be so dangerous.

“Some of the bad decisions people make when they drink can be even more likely with this combination,” he said. “Things like getting into fights or other poor choices can be a result of the disinhibiting effects of alcohol. Caffeine can exacerbate these effects.”

Michael McBride, who works with Partners in Prevention, a statewide group of 20 colleges and universities that try to reduce binge drinking, said drinks like Four Loko are “extremely risky.”

“One can of Four Loko is 12 percent alcohol, which is equivalent to four to five standard drinks, and drinking five or more drinks within two hours meets the definition of binge drinking,” he said.

Adding caffeine into the mix only makes it more dangerous, he said.

“By consuming a Four Loko by itself, not only are you already binge drinking, but you've already had quite a bit of caffeine as well as a sugar,” McBride said. “You then go from having someone who might be a tired drunk to someone who is a wired and excited drunk, so it could lead to all sort of other problems.”

Mixing alcohol and caffeine isn't a new thing. Rum and Coke, Irish coffee, and more recently Red Bull and vodka are classic drink options that are found at most bars.

Experts, however, say the difference between Four Loko and these popular drinks mostly comes down to one thing: the sheer amount of caffeine and alcohol.

McBride also said the drink's packaging can be misleading, which also is problematic.

He said the drinks look so much like normal energy drinks that consumers might not know what they're buying.

"It's just a bit confusing, frankly," he said.

Despite bad reviews from alcohol experts, Elgin gives Four Loko a thumbs-up.

"I don't see a problem," Elgin said. "It was just like drinking any other type of alcoholic beverage, except you feel like you have more energy. Really I just feel like it's like any other beverage where you have to drink it in moderation."

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Cora Mason November 18, 2010 | 8:44 p.m.
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Mark Foecking November 21, 2010 | 5:53 a.m.

"when police officers first saw them, they suspected that they had been given date-rape drugs"

Alcohol is the most widely used date-rape drug.

"Alcohol - for centuries, helping ugly people get laid"


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lacinda florez November 22, 2010 | 2:02 p.m.

Are you kidding what you do drunk or sober is on your shoulders. If you choose to drink to the point of intoxication and you have sex it's on you, why do so many women cry rape when they wake up? I f you are okay with it when your drunk, you have to accept responsibility when you sober up.

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