Four Loko: Does FDA's caffeinated alcoholic beverage ban go too far?

The Food and Drug Administration has told four manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, including the makers of Four Loko, to remove the caffeine from their drinks.

Elaine Thompson/AP
A delivery driver walks past a wall stacked with Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks at a convenience store Nov. 10 in Seattle.

“These keep me going where other alcoholic drinks always drag me down,” says Terry McAfee, a 20-something recent graduate of Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif.

He’s just plunked down $12 for four 23 ounce cans of Four Loko – the combination alcohol-caffeine drink whose manufacturer, Phusion Projects, LLC was one of four companies to receive warning letters this week from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Although health-care professionals and addiction specialists have applauded the FDA, some groups agree with consumers such as Mr. McAfee that this is the latest example of a “nanny state” government pushing itself too far on the public.

Currently, under federal law, an ingredient can't be added to a food or beverage unless it has been approved by the FDA or is generally recognized as safe. The FDA has never approved caffeine as an additive to alcoholic beverages. The four companies sent warnings were given 15 days to remove caffeine from their products.

Caffeinated alcoholic drinks have made headlines over the last year, including a case last month when nine students at Central Washington University were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko at a party, earning the drink the nickname "blackout-in-a-can."

Now some states – Including Vermont, Massachusetts, and Michigan – have taken the step of banning he drinks. When word got out that the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission had issued an emergency order for sellers to remove Four Loko from shelves Thursday, the reaction from some was to stock up – Boston blog site UniversalHub tweeted locations still selling the beverage.

Advocates of limited government say the FDA is going too far. “It’s time the FDA started treating consumers old enough to purchase alcoholic beverages as adults,” says Greg Conko, director of food and drug policy for the Competive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a nonprofit group that supports limited government.

He calls the FDA action a “power grab [that] will have little or no benefit for public safety. The FDA is making an unwarranted extrapolation to premixed commercial products in order to justify its regulatory overreach,” he says.

Health professionals have been quick to speak out against the dangers of mixing caffeine and alcohol.

“The FDA should be commended for moving on this," says Elizabeth Dowdell, an associate professor of nursing at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She says research confirms that alcohol impairs thinking and motor skills, and when combined with the stimulant of caffeine, the relaxation and sleepiness that usually accompany alcohol consumption are lost.

“These drinks give the person the extra energy to keep drinking and make the bad decisions associated with drinking,” she says.

A growing number of studies point to the danger of alcoholic drinks with caffeine, says Andrea Barthwell, a former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, now CEO of a North Carolina drug treatment facility.

  • A University of Florida study in April that interviewed patrons in a bar found that people "who had consumed alcohol mixed with energy drinks were at a three-fold increased risk of leaving a bar highly intoxicated,... as well as a four-fold increased risk of intending to drive upon leaving the bar district, compared to other drinking patrons who did not consume alcoholic beverages mixed with energy drinks."
  • And a new study at the School of Public Health at The University of Maryland said that those who consumed these energy drinks every week show signs of alcohol dependency. The study tracked nearly 1,100 seniors enrolled at a large public university.

"Drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are three times more likely to binge drink than drinkers who do not report mixing alcohol with energy drinks,” says Ms. Barthwell.

Mr. Conko of CEI counters that the ban goes too far, saying that according to the FDA's decision, other products could also be subject to bans.

“The same argument could be used to ban everything from Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper to an array of popular candies and snacks that currently contain added caffeine,” says Conko. “While that scenario may seem far-fetched, several other countries, including Canada and Australia, already enforce their prohibitions on the addition of caffeine to anything but cola-type soft drinks,” he said.

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