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New Alcoholic Energy Drink Comes Under Scrutiny

Four Loko Has Come Under Scrutiny after Sending Students to The Hospital
Photo by Darby Rose
After hospitalizing 9 students at Central Washington University, many are criticizing the 12% alcohol malt beverage

While there is nothing new to college kids swilling cheap alcohol to excess, a new malt drink has been raising eyebrows nationwide as it combines the sugary taste and energy kick of a Red Bull with the alcohol content of many fortified wines.

The drink, Four Loko, has gained notoriety because it was banned from Central Washington University after it sent nine of the school’s students to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. As KTRE-9 in East Texas reports:

Its name is derived from its four main ingredients.  The drink contains 12 percent alcohol which is equivalent to three or four 12-ounce beers.  It also has taurine, caffeine and guarana. Doctors say guarana alone contains up to three times more caffeine than coffee.

As the drink typically comes in a 16 ounce can, drinking a Four Loko is equal to having a 6-pack of Coke worth of caffeine and a 6-pack of beer worth of alcohol. Many are concerned because combining a depressant (the alcohol) with several stimulants (the other three ingredients), can wreck havoc on one’s heart. Drinkers might also not realize how intoxicated they are, as the typical feeling of drowsiness one identifies with drinking alcohol is counteracted by the energy jolt the drink provides.

Beverages that have both caffeine and alcohol are especially attractive to cash-strapped college students, as they usually retail for around $3, roughly half of what a six-pack of domestic beer costs.

There has been considerable panic over the explosive concoction in areas across the country. In Boston, one liquor store stopped carrying Four Loko due to the Central Washington incident and its reputation as “liquid crack” or “cocaine in a can.”

The FDA recently sent out a press release saying that it will be looking into Four Loko and thirty similar products. From the press release:

“The increasing popularity of consumption of caffeinated alcoholic beverages by college students and reports of potential health and safety issues necessitates that we look seriously at the scientific evidence as soon as possible,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs.

Four Loko is not the first beverage to draw the ire of those who find the combination of alcohol and stimulants deceptively lethal. As Daily Finance reports:

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and MillerCoors LLC stopped selling caffeinated alcoholic beverages including Tilt and Sparks under pressure from several states and federal regulators, but smaller companies continued to sell such products and have since increased sales. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said earlier investigations showed the big company's beverages were aggressively marketed to a younger crowd.

In July, New York Senator Charles Schumer urged the FTC to further investigate claims that the drinks are being targeting towards toward underage drinkers. So far, no federal action has been taken against Four Loko or similar drinks.

While the drink’s potency has brought it under fire by a variety of federal lawmakers, in Austin the drink is developing a low-brow, ironic following, much in the same tradition as MD 20/20 or Thunderbird. Bloggersaround the city have been documenting their experiences with the drink, and The New York Times specifically mentioned Austin in their story about the drink:

The popularity of the drink is noticeable at stores near college campuses. The manager at a 7-Eleven near the University of Texas in Austin said he began to see an increase in Four Loko sales this summer. About three months ago, the manager, Ron Hossain, said he gave it more space on his shelves in response to the increased sales and the beverage company’s expansion of flavors.