A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Phusion Projects Inc. after a Florida man got drunk on Four Loko, a controversial alcoholic energy drink, and shot himself in the head with a pistol.
The family of Jason Keiran, 20, filed the Four Loko lawsuit in Orange County Circuit Court on Friday, less than a week before the FDA issued warning letters to Phusion and other energy drink makers that it considers caffeine an unsafe additive for alcoholic beverages, which will shut down the entire alcoholic energy drink industry.
The FDA’s alcoholic energy drink warning letter, issued yesterday, comes after a year-long investigation by agency into the safety of drinks that mix large amounts of alcohol and caffeine, like Four Loko. By warning about the combination of caffeine and alcohol, and the FDA has essentially forced an alcoholic energy drink recall and ban.
Keiran, a college student, died two months ago after drinking Four Loko that he purchased in a Tallahassee store. Witnesses said that he binged all day on the drink, telling friends that he felt fine due to the caffeine. Some experts say that the effects of the caffeine can override the body’s warning signs about intoxication, spurring them on to riskier behavior and more drinking. After consuming a large amount of the drink, Keiran put a .22-caliber pistol to his head and fired, killing himself.
Earlier this week, Phusion Projects bowed to public pressure and the impending FDA ban, announcing that it would remove caffeine and other energy drink properties from Four Loko. In its current formulation, Four Loko has a 12% alcohol content, equivalent to about four beers, and three times the amount of caffeine as a regular cup of coffee, all in a 23.5-ounce can that sells for as little as $2.75. After nine Washington state college students were hospitalized for binge drinking Four Loko, it was dubbed “blackout in a can.” Four Loko is the most popular alcoholic energy drink on the market, with an estimated $200 million in annual sales.
The FDA acknowledged that Phusion’s announcement to pull caffeine from Four Loko is a positive step, but said it has not been officially notified by the company that it intends to do so.
The FDA warning letters were sent to Phusion, as well as Charge Beverages Corp., which makes the Core High Gravity line of alcoholic energy drinks; New Century Brewing Co., LLC, which produces Moonshot; and United Brands Company Inc., which manufactures Joose and Max. Major alcoholic beverage producers, including Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors had already bowed out of the alcoholic energy drink business last year, voluntarily removing Tilt, Sparks, and Bud Extra from the market.
The letters come over objections from Phusion that their drinks are safe and that other alcohol and caffeine combinations, such as Irish coffee and rum-and-coke, have gone unquestioned.
“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 Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Principal Deputy Commissioner, in the FDA press release announcing the letters. “To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern.”
The letter requires the companies to respond within 15 days as to how they will address the problem, and warns that if caffeine is not removed from the drinks or the drinks taken off the market, they could face further action, including seizure of their products.
In October 2008, a group of one hundred scientists and physicians, led by a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, sent a petition to the FDA urging the agency to increase regulation of all energy drinks, including non-alcohol energy drinks, such as Red Bull, Rock Star, Monster and Full Throttle. The experts indicated that the wide disparity in caffeine and alcohol content in various brands of energy drinks is not properly noted on the products, increasing the risk of caffeine intoxication and alcohol-related injuries.
A product liability lawsuit was filed against MillerCoors over Sparks in September 2009 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. The Center charged that Sparks contained unauthorized additives and posed a safety and health risk to consumers. The lawsuit also alleged that Sparks was actively marketed to minors and other young people. Anheuser-Busch faced similar lawsuits from advocacy groups and state attorney generals before they pulled Tilt and Bud Extra.