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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Four Loko - Alcohol and Caffeine

Remember the  nine college students in Washington State who were hospitalized after ingesting date-rape drugs, cops thought? It turns out they were actually sickened by the high-alcohol caffeinated drink Four Loko, according to school officials.

About fifty Central Washington University students and friends had gathered at a party in Roslyn, Washington, where students were guzzling the beverage, nicknamed “blackout in a can.” Reportedly, many of the partygoers were underage. All nine ill students, including six women and three men, were freshmen aged 17 to 19 years and were inexperienced drinkers.. The blood alcohol levels of those taken ill ranged from .123 percent to .335 percent, while in Washington, 0.08 is the legal limit for intoxication and 0.3 can be considered lethal. (Keka Sehgal "Four Loko Blamed for Sickening Nine CWU Students," The Money Times, October 26 2010)

The legal beverage Four Loko, comes in a 23.5 ounce can, sells for about $2.50, and packs a 12 percent alcohol content making it comparable to drinking five to six beers. That's not all -- the caffeine in the drink can also suspend the effects of alcohol consumption.

Four Loko is one of those few flashy, canned drinks that take mixing out of the equation, making it that much easier for students to get dangerously intoxicated, faster. It has quickly become a rage on college campuses across the U.S. In a June 2008 study published in the Journal of American College Health, Kathleen E. Miller found that 26% of surveyed public university undergraduates reported consuming energy drinks mixed with alcohol in the past month, while about half said they'd done so more than once.

But is it that dangerous? Ramapo College in New Jersey certainly thinks so.

Peter Mercer, president of the college, called Four Loko a "cynical product" whose only purpose is to get the drinker intoxicated quickly. Others agree: Glen L. Sherman, co-chair of the Alcohol and Other Drug Knowledge Community for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said the drinks are dangerous because of their apparent targeting of underage student consumers and their high alcohol content — drinking one can of Four Loko is the approximate equivalent of drinking four beers, according to an informational page NASPA recently posted on its website. (Allie Grasgreen, "Alcohol and Caffeine Drinks: The Next Student Health Problem? USA Today,  October 25 2010)

The aforementioned Kathleen E. Miller, a research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has studied college students' use of energy drinks, both with and without alcohol.

"A college ban will make people take a second look and maybe they'll be more aware of what they're drinking," Miller said. "It's inherently potentially dangerous to mix caffeine and alcohol because you're sending your body mixed signals." The caffeine stimulates the system while the alcohol depresses it, making students feel less drunk than they actually are..." (Allie Grasgreen, "Alcohol and Caffeine Drinks: The Next Student Health Problem? USA Today,  October 25 2010)
Jaisen Freeman, a former Ohio State University hockey player started Phusion Projects, the Chicago-based maker of Four Loko. He developed it with two other OSU grads, Chris Hunter and Jeff Wright. Freeman said Phusion Projects submitted a report this summer to the FDA on why Four Loko is safe. The findings, which were based on a study conducted by scientific and food safety experts, are being reviewed by the federal agency. (Len Boselovic, "Four Loko-- 'Blackout' In a Can," Chicago Sun Times, October 23 2010)

Four Loko debuted in the US market in 2005, first in Ohio, followed by Florida/California/Illinois by mid-year, then spreading to other states. Its name is derived from its four other ingredients, caffeine, taurine (an amino acid), guarana (seeds of South American shrub, and alcohol. Now available in nine flavors -- the three original flavors (fruit punch, orange blend and grape), -- plus watermelon, blue raspberry, kiwi strawberry, lemonade, cranberry lemonade and lemon lime.

In a study in Addictive Behavior, a scientific journal, Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at University of Florida College of Medicine, and Dennis Thombs, a former University of Florida College of Public Health professor, wrote that college-age drinkers who'd had an energy beverage mixed with alcohol stayed in the bars later and tended to think they were capable of driving more often than those who'd only had alcohol. (Len Boselovic, "Four Loko-- 'Blackout' In a Can," Chicago Sun Times, October 23 2010) Here are their findings:

* College-age adults who had consumed energy drinks mixed with alcohol left bars later and were more likely to leave intoxicated than those who drank just alcohol.

* They also were more inclined to think they were capable of driving than those who consumed just alcohol.
Columbia University's student health service website,, said caffeine's stimulating effect can make people less aware of the effects of alcohol. That can cause them to take risks that that they otherwise might not take. 

In addition, both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, so mixing them could cause dehydration. A dehydrated body is slow to process alcohol, and that interferes with "coordination, balance and ability to regulate body temperature." (Aina Hunter, "Four Loko: Is New Party Brew 'Liquid Cocaine?'" CBS News June 17, 2010

Attorneys general in Connecticut, New York, California, and other states are investigating the potential health risks of the drink, along with the marketing practices used to sell it, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Andrea Kayda, "Researchers Claim You Have to be 'Loko' to Drink Four," The Ticker, 2010)

Four Loko is not the first energy drink that has stirred controversy. In 2008, MillerCoors LLC removed the caffeine from Sparks, their brand's energy-alcohol hybrid, after several states' attorneys general made a complaint to the FDA about caffeinated malt liquor. In the same year, Anheuser-Busch also announced it would discontinue these products.  However, smaller companies such as United Brands, which makes JOOSE, still manufacture them. (Brian Resnick, "Students Are Going Loco Four Loko," The Review: Delaware's Independent Student Newspaper," September 14 2010)

"It gets you really drunk really fast and it gives you a lot of energy so you're not going to be laying down and sleeping," said 18-year-old CWU freshman Hyatt Van Cotthem of Everett, Wash., who said he's tried the beverage but doesn't drink it because the taste is "nasty." He didn't attend the CWU (Washington State) party. (Shannon Dininny, "Wash. Case Raises Alcoholic Energy Drink Concerns," Yahoo News, October 26 2010)

Cotthem said that regulating such drinks would be a good idea because he's seen so many students do dumb things when drinking it. But he and a friend also questioned that the drink alone could have wreaked so much havoc. "There's no way that Four Loko caused all these people to just pass out," he said.

Perhaps the verdict is still out; however, the possible bad consequences that could develop from this product certainly outweigh any possible benefit. The combination of caffeine and alcohol is appealing to young drinkers because it's rapidly intoxicating and extremely vogue. It's consistent with that instant, cool gratification that young people crave today.

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