FDA, FTC crack down on caffeinated alcoholic drinks


FDA, FTC crack down on caffeinated alcoholic drinks

Alcoholic energy drinks are seen in a cooler reflecting overhead lights at a convenience store Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Seattle. Following a vote by the state Liquor Control Board Wednesday morning, Washington state is banning the drinks effective Nov. 18. The ban comes after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a party last month, where authorities say they drank the caffeinated malt liquor beverage Four Loko. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Alcoholic energy drinks are seen in a cooler reflecting overhead lights at a convenience store Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Seattle. Following a vote by the state Liquor Control Board Wednesday morning, Washington state is banning the drinks effective Nov. 18. The ban comes after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a party last month, where authorities say they drank the caffeinated malt liquor beverage Four Loko. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (Elaine Thompson – AP)

Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks are seen in the cooler of a convenience store Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Seattle. Following a vote by the state Liquor Control Board Wednesday morning, Washington state is banning the drinks effective Nov. 18. The ban comes after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a party last month, where authorities say they drank the caffeinated malt liquor beverage Four Loko. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks are seen in the cooler of a convenience store Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Seattle. Following a vote by the state Liquor Control Board Wednesday morning, Washington state is banning the drinks effective Nov. 18. The ban comes after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a party last month, where authorities say they drank the caffeinated malt liquor beverage Four Loko. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (Elaine Thompson – AP)

Alcoholic energy drinks in cans are seen in a beer cooler at a convenience store Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Seattle. Following a vote by the state Liquor Control Board Wednesday morning, Washington state is banning the drinks effective Nov. 18. The ban comes after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a party last month, where authorities say they drank the caffeinated malt liquor beverage Four Loko. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Alcoholic energy drinks in cans are seen in a beer cooler at a convenience store Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, in Seattle. Following a vote by the state Liquor Control Board Wednesday morning, Washington state is banning the drinks effective Nov. 18. The ban comes after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized after a party last month, where authorities say they drank the caffeinated malt liquor beverage Four Loko. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) (Elaine Thompson – AP)

FILE – In this Nov. 10, 2010 file photo, Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks are seen in the cooler of a convenience store, in Seattle. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce a virtual ban of alcoholic energy drinks Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, even as a leading manufacturer is pulling its products off the market. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

FILE – In this Nov. 10, 2010 file photo, Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks are seen in the cooler of a convenience store, in Seattle. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce a virtual ban of alcoholic energy drinks Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, even as a leading manufacturer is pulling its products off the market. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file) (Elaine Thompson – AP)

Federal officials began a crackdown Wednesday on potent alcoholic drinks that contain caffeine, warning companies that market the increasingly popular but dangerous beverages that the products are illegal.

The Food and Drug Administration sent letters to four companies that produce seven products, saying the agency had concluded that adding caffeine to alcohol was unsafe and unapproved. If the companies have not taken action within 15 days, the FDA could seek a court order barring them from continuing to sell the products, which have become a favorite among college students.

“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 in a written statement. “To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern.”

Federal officials were facing increasing pressure to take action in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents, especially involving college students. Students at Central Washington University and Ramapo College in New Jersey ended up in the emergency room after consuming the drink Four Loko, including some who had such high alcohol levels in their blood that they were treated for alcohol poisoning. In other incidents, deaths and fatal car crashes have been blamed on the drinks.

The drinks, sometimes called a “blackout in a can,” contain high levels of alcohol and caffeine, making it difficult for people to realize how intoxicated they are, experts say. That puts them at increased risk for alcohol poisoning and engaging in risky behavior such as driving drunk and committing or being the victims of sexual assaults, they say. Consuming one can of Four Loko, the most popular of the drinks, is the equivalent of drinking as many as five cans of beer and a cup of coffee.

Officials from the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and state attorneys general from Iowa and Washington state will further explain the crackdown at an afternoon briefing.

“I call them killer cocktails,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has been working with other attorneys general to pressure the federal government to take action against the drinks. “Young people have been dying after drinking this stuff. It’s about time we’re finally doing something about these dangerous drinks.”

Washington state, Michigan and other states have banned the drinks, others have taken or are considering similar steps, and more could act based on the federal action. Officials in Virginia and Maryland said they were mulling their options. The District had no plans to take any independent steps.

“State-level product bans will continue to be necessary to get the products off of store shelves,” said Michele Simon of the Marin Institute in San Francisco, an alcohol-industry watchdog group. “States are the primary regulators of alcoholic beverages and have full authority to ban alcoholic energy drinks whether by regulatory or legislative action, or through attorney general enforcement.”
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With the number of state bans increasing and the federal crackdown imminent, Phusion Projects of Chicago, which makes Four Loko, announced Tuesday night that it was removing caffeine and other substances from all of its products.

“We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country – that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees . . . would face the same scrutiny that our products recently faced,” said Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman, the company’s managing partners, in a statement. “We are taking this step after trying – unsuccessfully – to navigate a difficult and politically charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels.”

Phusion previously announced that it was voluntarily ceasing sales in New York after officials there pushed to ban the beverages.

Four Loko was a concoction of four main ingredients – caffeine, malt liquor, guarana, a South American plant whose seeds are rich in caffeine, and taurine, an amino acid that some think can boost athletic and mental performance – plus sugar and artificial flavoring. Gaurana and taurine will also be removed, the company announced.

Sold in 23.5-ounce brightly colored cans containing 12 percent alcohol for about $2.50 each, Four Loko has been marketed aggressively in multiple fruit flavors on college campuses. The drinks and similar products have become the focus of parties on many campuses.

A year ago, the FDA sent letters to nearly 30 companies that make the beverages, notifying them that it planned to investigate the drinks’ safety and legality. State officials and other critics of the drinks had become frustrated that it was taking the agency so long to act.

In its statement, Phusion complained that “over the last several months we have been more than willing to talk with regulators and policymakers on the national, state and local levels. Our company has a history of being as cooperative as we possibly can to ensure that our products are consumed safely, responsibly and only by of-age adults.”

The company said it had previously added multiple warning labels to its cans and taken other steps, including selling versions of its products with lower alcohol content.

“By taking this action today, we are again demonstrating leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship,” the company said.

Under pressure from state attorneys general, several large brewers, including Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors stopped marketing caffeinated products in 2008. But products such as Four Loko and Joose produced by United Brands of San Diego and other small brewers took off. That raised concern the larger companies might reenter the market.

In a statement released in advance of Wednesday’s announcement, United Brands Chief Executive Officer and President Michael Michail said the company was “aware of the concerns expressed by various regulators and will ensure that all Joose products meet state and national health and safety guidelines.

“We respect the decision of the FDA, will be reviewing the details of the new guidelines and will be aligning new FDA rules with the demands of our loyal consumer base,” Michail said. “And, as we always have, will market Joose products in a legal and responsible manner.”
 

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