Potent drinks are illegal, FDA warns

Joose and Four Loko , high in both alcohol and caffeine. Some drinkers have ended up in the ER.
Joose and Four Loko , high in both alcohol and caffeine. Some drinkers have ended up in the ER.
Posted: November 18, 2010

What has local doctors, legislators, and police cheering - and many young people mourning?

Alcoholic energy drinks - nicknamed "blackout in a can" - are about to disappear.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters Wednesday to the manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks telling them it is illegal to produce the beverages.

Anticipating these developments, Phusion Projects, maker of the best-known brand, Four Loko, announced Tuesday that it was removing caffeine and the natural stimulants guarana and taurine, leaving potent malt-liquor beverages that taste more like fruit-flavored sodas than beer.

They were doing so, the company's founders said, even though they "still believe, as do many people throughout the country - that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe."

Though it isn't being called an outright ban, the FDA's action, along with related steps taken Wednesday by other federal agencies regarding packaging, marketing, and distribution, is likely to banish the beverages from store shelves nationwide.

"Well, that's a start," said Peter Mercer, president of Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, who banned the beverages from campus six weeks ago after learning of students who had been rushed to the emergency room after consuming them. "I think now we have the question of what size container are they going to market it in and how are they going to market it."

Robert McNamara, chairman of emergency medicine at Temple University Hospital, was glad to hear of the FDA's action. "We've seen a lot of students, younger people, use the product and get into trouble."

That trouble, mainly among 18- to 20-year-olds, includes alcohol poisoning and breathing problems.

"We've had to put young people on ventilators, put a tube in their lungs," McNamara said. "That's on the edge of dying."

Legislators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, who recently discussed regulating these kinds of drinks, applauded the FDA's move but were unsure whether a state-level ban was still necessary.

Premixed caffeinated malt liquor beverages have bubbled up in popularity and controversy in recent months.

Also called "liquid cocaine," 231/2-ounce cans of Four Loko and Joose contain 12 percent alcohol (five or six beers' worth) and caffeine said to be the equivalent of three or four cups of coffee. They appeal to underage drinkers with low cost - less than $3 each - a quick buzz, and sweet fizzy flavors, packaged in colorful cans sporting edgy designs.

Caffeine masks the effects of the alcohol, which can lead to overconsumption and clouded judgment.

"FDA does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these alcoholic beverages is 'generally recognized as safe,' which is the legal standard," said Joshua M. Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner. "To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern."

The letters were sent to Phusion; Charge Beverages Corp., which makes Core drinks; New Century Brewing Co., maker of Moonshot; and United Brands Co., which produces Joose and Max. The manufacturers will have 15 days to respond to the FDA's finding that adding caffeine to alcoholic beverages is unsafe. If the companies don't reformulate the drinks, further action could include seizure of the products or an injunction barring production until the violation is corrected. The FDA action did not target liqueurs such as Kahlua, which contains caffeine because one of its ingredients is coffee.

As a result of the FDA's decision, the Federal Trade Commission warned the same manufacturers that their marketing of the products may be illegal, while the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau said it was notifying producers, wholesalers and importers that they are prohibited from selling or shipping the beverages.

Michael Rockower, owner of Monster Beverage in Glassboro, where Rowan University is located, said he expected the Four Loko wholesaler to advise him soon that it would take back all of the beverages.

Judging by comments posted on Twitter, the prospect of losing Loko in its current form left young people feeling wistful.

"RIP Four Loko," wrote one woman. "We should do our duty as young people & throw a 'Four Loko Banning' party," tweeted a man.

"It was great!" said another woman. "Bye bye Four Loko the FDA has spoken."


Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis

at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.

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