Alco-pops: Cans of potent punch spur calls for bans
27 October 2010
These aren't your ordinary Friday night, stumble-from-bar-to-bar beverages, even by college-binge standards. The potent, and cheap, mega-mixes of caffeine and alcohol have earned the nicknames "liquid cocaine" and "blackout in a can" for a reason.
These aren't your ordinary Friday night, stumble-from-bar-to-bar beverages, even by college-binge standards. The potent, and cheap, mega-mixes of caffeine and alcohol have earned the nicknames "liquid cocaine" and "blackout in a can" for a reason.
They look innocent, packaged like trendy teas or energy drinks with fruity flavors in colorful cans. They even fizz and taste like sweet soda. Why, parents might not even realize it if their teenager walked into the house carrying one.
It's no wonder that schools, police, and lawmakers want to banish caffeinated alco-pops - Four Loko and Joose are among the most popular brands - as much as young people want to buy them.
Although precise amounts of all ingredients aren't listed on the packaging, one 23½-ounce can is said to pack the punch of three or four cups of coffee and nearly a six-pack of beer. Four Loko and Joose boast a 12 percent alcohol content. (A typical beer is considered pretty potent at 6 percent.)
A bill to ban the drinks is pending in New Jersey, while a Pennsylvania House resolution asks the Liquor Control Board to study their risks. Nationally, the Food and Drug Administration is trying to determine if caffeine can be "safely and lawfully added to alcoholic beverages," said an FDA spokesman.
Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah this month banned alcoholic energy drinks on campus after a noise complaint led to an inebriated student who had been drinking the caffeinated alcohol.
And this week, it was announced that nine students from Central Washington University were hospitalized after consuming cans of Four Loko and other alcoholic beverages.
"The sole purpose of it is to intoxicate people, particularly young people," said Ramapo president Peter Mercer. "It's a very cynical product. . . . I was very afraid one of our students was going to end up very ill or even dead."
Death seems distant when the drinks, which cost about $2.50, cause a boozy bliss right now.
"You can drink two and be done," said Ferrell Townsend, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.
After all, if you consume enough alcohol, a depressant, you inevitably pass out. Add a stimulant, and you can bypass the drowsiness that often ends the party. You may even have energy to drink more.
Alcoholic energy drinks are the latest twist in the evolution of beverages aimed at a youthful demographic. Whereas sodas rule the hearts and teeth of the very young, college students use the power of coffee to help them through nights of studying.
Out of that other college ritual, barhopping, came malt beverages with amped-up amounts of caffeine and guarana and taurine, which are natural energy boosters.
"I think it's a really bad idea to prepackage a stimulant and a depressant, both in large quantities, and sell them in a single serving," said David Jernigan, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. "These products create a population of alert drunks."
In a research letter printed this summer in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, physician David Weldy wrote that the beverage "gives the perception of decreased intoxication without altering impairment."
A Wake Forest University study showed the consequences: College students who reported mixing alcohol and energy drinks consumed more in a single episode and were drunk more in a single week.
The research, based on a 2006 survey of 4,271 college students in North Carolina, showed the drinkers to have "dramatically higher rates of serious alcohol-related consequences," including being taken advantage of sexually, being in a car with a drunken driver, and getting injured.
Michael Reihart, an emergency room doctor at Lancaster General Hospital, said he had been seeing more patients over the last six weeks, at least two cases each weekend, with symptoms of drinking too much caffeinated alcohol.
The patients have been as young as 15, he said, including one girl who was unconscious after drinking a single can.
Reihart also described a 28-year-old man who tried to drink four cans of Four Loko - legend has it that four match the effects of liquid cocaine. After three cans, the man was nearly comatose with a blood-alcohol content between 0.35 percent and 0.4 percent, and had lost control of his bowels and bladder.
Doctors at medical facilities in the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network also have seen teenagers and adults come into the ER after drinking alcoholic energy drinks, said Mike Kowalski, emergency room doctor and toxicology fellow at Albert Einstein Medical Center. They often have injuries, such as cuts from broken glass, that likely result from higher-risk behavior, he said.
Although their rise in popularity is new, this is not the first round of caffeinated alco-pops. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors used to make them, but in 2008 a group of state attorneys general got the brewers to stop selling caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
Smaller producers have filled the void.
"We saw an opportunity in the market for a premixed, caffeinated alcoholic beverage," said Jaisen Freeman, who along with two other Ohio State University buddies in 2005 founded Chicago-based Phusion Projects, which makes Four Loko. "Our products are not energy drinks, as they've been called - and when consumed responsibly, they are just as safe as any other alcoholic beverage."
He added, "For years, people have enjoyed rum and cola, or a cup of coffee after having wine with dinner."
Regarding the Central Washington incident, the company said, "No one is more upset than we are when our products are abused or consumed illegally by underage drinkers." Still, drinks other than Four Loko also contributed to the students' conditions, it said.
Phusion educates the public and retailers that the drinks are to be sold only to those 21 and older, Freeman said, and doesn't sponsor a Facebook page or a YouTube channel. Joose, made by United Brands, does have a Facebook page.
Police officer David Burns, who works with Glassboro High School, isn't buying Freeman's arguments. "Imagine someone who's drunk and he's on that much caffeine," he said, shaking his head.
Burns said he found out about these beverages only recently when he stopped a teenage driver and saw one in his car. Burns initially mistook it for a popular energy drink, such as Red Bull. When he researched the drinks, he learned that they're big sellers at beverage stores in Glassboro, where Rowan University also is located.
At a back-to-school night at Glassboro High, Burns set up a display featuring a variety of alcoholic energy drinks, all in brightly colored cans with edgy designs.
"It verges on evil," said William Murray, 54, of Glassboro, whose daughter is a senior in the high school. "If you're going to sell something like this, don't make it look like a drink kids will buy."
Divante Wright, a member of the Glassboro varsity basketball team, said he had not consumed the drinks, but he had friends who did.
"I've seen plenty of people at parties," said the 15-year-old. "They're regular one minute and then they're wasted."
The beverages are more prevalent among college students, who if older than 21 can buy them in New Jersey in liquor stores and in Pennsylvania at beer distributors, as well as other authorized establishments. Penn student Townsend started noticing more people drinking Four Loko over the summer, especially during Penn's new-student orientation. These days, people throw Four Loko parties, where nothing else is served.
"If you drink a lot of it, you're more likely to throw up. . . . Still, when you're drinking it, it tastes a lot better than beer would taste," he said.
At Pennsylvania State University, students said it was the drink of choice for pregame activities. They also mix it with other beverages to get a more powerful effect.
Others are less enamored with the drinks.
"I tried it once and . . . it just tasted bad to me," said Ashley Gold, 21, of Pittsburgh. "I think people drink it because it's trendy, honestly."
The Marin Institute, an alcohol-industry watchdog based in California, has been pushing to get the drinks banned. Unlike the headway made with the bigger breweries, little progress has been made.
"We are feeling quite frustrated at the moment because there doesn't seem to be any action going on anywhere," says institute spokesman Michael Scippa.
That leaves Michael Rockower, owner of Glassboro's Monster Beverage, selling the tall cans to anyone of legal age.
And sell it does - well over a few hundred cases per month in September and October.
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