It seems that the phenomenon of Four Loko will mirror the effect it has on those who drink it: After a brief but soaring high, it appears set to come crashing down.
A recent ruling by the Food and Drug Administration on the safety of alcoholic energy drinks like Four Loko has prompted liquor stores around the country to take their cans off the shelves and has threatened to cripple the alcoholic energy drink industry.
The FDA issued a ruling on Nov. 17 that alcohol combined with caffeine was unsafe and posed a public health risk. The ruling followed a year-long study of popular alcoholic energy drinks that combine alcohol with stimulants like caffeine. The FDA gave warnings to four companies — including Phusion Projects, which manufactures Four Loko — saying that they had 15 days to show the FDA that they intended to reformulate their drinks or face the possibility of getting their products seized.
Four Loko is a malt-based alcoholic energy drink that was first released in 2005 and became very popular with college students. The drink comes in several fruity flavors, like Blue Raspberry and Cranberry Lemonade, and derives its name from the fact that it has four main ingredients: alcohol, caffeine, guarana and taurine (guarana and taurine are stimulants often found in energy drinks). The drink is sold in colorful 23.5-ounce cans and contains 12 percent alcohol by volume, which means a single can is equivalent to about four beers and a cup of coffee all rolled into one, earning the drink the nickname “blackout in a can” from its detractors.
With its colorful packaging and fruity flavors, the drink quickly became popular with younger drinkers, particularly on college campuses.
“Four Loko is definitely our best-selling alcoholic energy drink, and the people we normally see buying them are students and the younger crowd,” says Josh Cherry, the day manager at Baseline Liquors. “It’s definitely not the older, more sophisticated drinkers. The range is typically 21 to 25 years old.”
Four Loko’s soaring popularity soon attracted the attention of the FDA, which announced last November that it had never approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and that it would be con ducting a study to assess the health risks.
The FDA ruled that the drinks are more dangerous than typical alcohols because the addition of caffeine and other stimulants temporarily masks the effects of alcohol. As a result, drinkers are often unable to properly judge how drunk they are, which leads them to drink more than they can handle or do things that they normally would avoid after drinking. A 2009 University of Florida study showed that subjects who drank alcoholic energy drinks were four times more likely to think they were OK to drive than those who consumed the same amount of non-caffeinated alcohol.
“They may not be aware that the alcohol content is much higher than they are used to drinking in a regular beer, so they may be consuming more alcohol than they are aware of,” says Donald Misch, the director of CU’s Wardenburg Health Center. “Now some kids do this intentionally. This is a great way to pre-party quickly. I think that some of its appeal is that it serves that function.”
The issue came into the spotlight after a party gone wrong in Roslyn, Wash., on Oct. 8. Police found a woman passed out in the parking lot of a grocery store, and found out from her friends that she had been drinking Four Loko at a nearby party. When officers arrived at the party, they found that it had gotten out of control, with several students passed out and so intoxicated that officers initially thought that they had overdosed on drugs.
Nine students at the party who were drinking Four Loko were hospitalized with blood alcohol levels ranging from 0.12 to 0.35, and one woman almost died.
All nine students attended nearby Central Washington University and were underage.
The incident gained national attention, and the state moved quickly to ban the drink, issuing an emergency ban on all caffeinated alcoholic drinks that went into effect on Nov. 18. The emergency ban lasts 120 days, but the state liquor board can make the ban permanent if it chooses to do so. Five other states — Kansas, Utah, Massachusetts, Michigan and Oklahoma — have followed suit and issued bans, while Phusion Projects has agreed to voluntarily stop shipping Four Loko to New York and Connecticut.
Several colleges have also taken steps to rid their campuses of the drinks. Some have banned Four Loko outright, while others have even tried to ban non-alcoholic energy drinks, fearful that students will mix the alcohol and energy drinks on their own. CU officials did not do either, partly because they felt banning alcoholic energy drinks or energy drinks themselves was a slippery slope.
“Why this one versus another one?” Misch says. “I think there are reasons why these drinks are of concern, that’s for sure, but whether or not we even have an ability to ban a specific kind of drink is another question.”
Misch says that CU has not had any reported incidents like the party in Roslyn, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.
“We haven’t had people that have ended up in the emergency room that we are aware of because of Four Loko or drinks like that,” Misch says. “But as you can imagine, students don’t rush to tell us that they are drinking these things, so typically, unless something bad happens, we won’t know about specific incidents. It doesn’t mean it’s not occurring; I’m sure it is, but we don’t have specific incidents, and I hope it stays that way.”
Phusion Projects has already said it will be reformulating the drink, taking out the caffeine, guarana and taurine. Because Phusion gave the FDA its written intention to reformulate the drink, it shouldn’t face any further action by the FDA. But despite its efforts to take out the caffeine and other additives, Four Loko may still face problems convincing states that the drink is safe. Kansas, the latest state to ban the drink, banned Four Loko even after the company announced the reformulation.
There is also a question of whether Four Loko will continue to sell after the reformulation. Without the appeal of the caffeine additives, Four Loko essentially becomes just another malt beer, albeit a fruity one. Similar drinks like Tilt (manufactured by Anheuser Busch) and Sparks (Miller Brewing), which reformulated their drinks to omit stimulants like caffeine, have experienced a drastic drop in sales with the reformulated product.
“Sparks, we barely sell any of that stuff anymore,” says Cherry.
Last week he told Boulder Weekly that he believes Baseline Liquor is the only liquor store in Boulder that still has Four Loko in stock. Cherry added that the remaining drinks with the original formula have been flying off the shelves since the FDA’s announcement. Cherry also said that the store will carry the reformulated version to see how the new formula sells.
“We’re going to see how it goes,” says Cherry.
“We’re not ready to make a decision yet. We’re expecting it won’t be nearly as popular, and I don’t think we’re going to give it as much space. Right now we carry all of the flavors two-wide on our shelves. But if the sales drastically drop, who knows? It’s hard to say right now.”