One Central Washington University student nearly died, and eight more were hospitalized in 2010 after consuming Four Loko, a caffeinated alcoholic beverage. Similar incidents were reported all over the country, and a few ended in fatal over-consumption.
The caffeine and heavy sweetening – flavors included watermelon and blue raspberry – masked the punch of Four Loko’s 12 percent alcohol content. The standard 23.5-ounce cans in bright camouflage coloring contained the equivalent of four 12-ounce beers and one cup of coffee.
The stuff was called “blackout in a can.” Just to be sure, some students even added more alcohol.
This was a product begging to be abused.
After the near-tragedy at Central Washington, the Liquor Control Board banned Four Loko sales for several months, but the Legislature rejected a permanent ban of alcoholic energy drinks.
A Food and Drug Administration order got the caffeine removed from Four Loko, but 19 state attorneys general and San Francisco’s city attorney sued maker Phusion Projects LLC and its officers, alleging violations of consumer protection and trade practice laws. They announced a settlement Tuesday that will not dilute the product but will change the way it’s marketed, and to whom.
Because most Four Loko consumers are college-age or younger, the settlement bars – in just about every imaginable way – advertising that includes anyone younger than age 25, or anyone who looks younger than 25. Even Santa Claus is off limits, which suggests the maturity of some targeted buyers.
Phusion cannot use college mascots in its promotional materials, or any reference to fraternities or sororities.
In yet another sign of the power of new media, Phusion must remove from its social media and websites that describe the use or mixing of the company’s beverages with either caffeine or additional alcohol.
And Four Loko retailers should be advised it should not be displayed with non-alcoholic beverages often packaged in garish cans the same size.
The settlement will not stop Four Loko sales. The 2010 furor over its sale actually helped build the brand, and Phusion has since made sweet and fruity alcohol products its niche.
In a statement, the company said it did not violate any laws, defended the safety of an alcohol-caffeine mix (even though it can no longer make such products) and described the settlement as “an opportunity to highlight our continued commitment to ensuring that our products are consumed safely.”
But Washington’s Bob Ferguson and Idaho’s Lawrence Wasden, who were among the attorneys general involved in the settlement, underscored the threat of underage and binge drinking.
New statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism on alcohol abuse by those aged 18 to 25 are horrific: more than 1,800 deaths, 690,000 assaults and 97,000 sexual assaults.
Alcohol abuse is tragic. Phusion and the makers of similar products cannot sugarcoat the numbers.