Federal regulators are reportedly preparing to ban drinks that contain both alcohol and caffeine, like Four Loko and Joose, following a number of deaths and hospitalizations among young people who drank them.
In a press release issued on Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer said that the FDA is preparing to send a notice to manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks that their products are not considered safe and will effectively ban them from the market.
The FDA has not publicly confirmed the alcoholic energy drink recall, but some caffeinated alcoholic beverage manufacturers say they are preparing to remove caffeine and other energy drink ingredients from their products to keep them on the market.
The push to get the products off the market has been sparked by a growing number of problems with energy drinks. In August, 18-year-old Nicole Lynn Celestino, from Long Island, New York, died of cardiac arrest after drinking Four Loko. She had also taken a diet pill the same day. In October, nine Central Washington University students, ranging in age from 17 to 19, were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko. One student nearly died due to a high blood alcohol level. The incident got Four Loko dubbed “blackout in a can” by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and the name stuck in the popular media.
Lawmakers and regulators say that the beverages are a deadly combination, utilizing the popularity of energy drinks and marketed in bright, stylish cans in a way that draws youthful drinkers, many underage. Some of the drinks contain the alcohol equivalent of four cans of beer and the caffeine of three cups of coffee. Experts say that the caffeine negates the body’s warning signs that someone has had too much to drink, making them alert and awake even at dangerous levels of intoxication.
Alcohol energy drinks are heavily used by underage drinkers and college students, often involving binge drinking and other reckless behavior. A 2007 study by researchers from Wake Forest University found that mixing alcohol, a depressant, and caffeine, a stimulant, can cause the drinker to be unaware of how intoxicated they actually are. The study found that college students who mixed caffeine and alcohol were more likely to be hurt, injured, ride with an intoxicated driver, or take advantage of someone else sexually.
The FDA has been investigating the safety of the drinks for about a year, and notified manufacturers that they had to show that using caffeine as an additive in alcoholic beverages was safe. However, it has not officially announced a ban of the drinks. Sen. Schumer, however, says the FDA ban is coming soon, and that the Federal Trade Commission is also planning to notify manufacturers that they are engaged in potentially illegal marketing of unsafe alcoholic beverages.
“Let these rulings serve as a warning to anyone who tried to peddle dangerous and toxic brews to our children. Do it and we will shut you down,” Sen. Schumer said in his press release. “This ruling should be the nail in the coffin of these dangerous and toxic drinks. Parents should be able to rest a little easier knowing that soon their children won’t have access to this deadly brew.”
A number of states have already banned the drinks, including Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington.
Phusion Projects Inc., the makers of Four Loko, the most popular alcoholic energy drink on the market, announced that they will remove caffeine, guarana and taurine from their drinks, despite a belief that they are safe. Launched in August 2008, Four Loko took off and now brings in about $200 million in annual sales.
The company’s founders pointed out that drinks such as rum and coke and Irish coffee have long combined caffeine and alcohol and have not been questioned. Phusion Projects officials said their calls for fair, clear and consistent packaging and manufacturing standards in lieu of a total ban was ignored.
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.
In recent years, some major beverage manufacturers decided to remove caffeinated alcoholic drinks from the market under an agreement with the FDA. Both Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors removed caffeine from Tilt, Sparks, and Bud Extra, and agreed not to market any other caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
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.
Photo Courtesy of Austin Uhler via Wikimedia Commons public domain.