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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

On eve of ban, FDA steps into debate

The Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters today to four manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, including Four Loko, above. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
One the eve of Washington’s emergency ban on potent caffeinated alcohol drinks, the federal government stepped into the fray. The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday moved to ban alcoholic energy drinks, drawing praise from Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, whose office has pushed for restrictions or a ban on caffeinated alcohol drinks since 2007. Under the federal rule, which comes just one week after the state announced its ban, manufacturers will have 15 days to prove their drinks are safe, which is unlikely, McKenna said. On Nov. 10, the state Liquor Control Board issued an emergency ban on the drinks, which takes effect tomorrow. It was prompted after nine Central Washington University students were hospitalized in October after drinking Four Loko at a party. The FDA issued warning letters to four companies — Charge Beverages Corp., New Century Brewing Co., LLC, United Brands Company, Inc. and Phusion Projects, LLC — saying that caffeine was an “unsafe additive” to their products. A decision by some manufacturers to remove caffeine probably won’t let them escape the ban, McKenna added, because the FDA is also analyzing the effects of other stimulants used in the drinks, such as guarana. FDA figures show the drinks are far more potent than some other concoctions, he said. A 24-ounce can of Four Loko has two to three times as much caffeine as a cup of coffee or a can of Red Bull, and the alcohol content of about five beers. It’s much more potent than an Irish coffee, a bar cocktail that mixes coffee, a shot of whiskey and sugar, and more potent than chasing a shot of vodka with a Red Bull, he added. Having just one can of Four Loko qualifies as binge drinking under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition, which is four drinks on one occasion for women and five for men. “Fueled by aggressive youth-targeted marketing campaigns on social network sites and college campuses, these companies promote excessive drinking and enhanced abilities,” McKenna said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, with increased consumption of these beverages among teens and college students, reports of alcohol poisoning, serious injuries, sexual assaults and hospitalizations have become all too common.” The state ban will be in effect for 120 days. McKenna said the board may not have to extend it because of the FDA ruling. It was unfortunate, but not surprising, the state’s ban prompted a run on the drinks as some people stocked up before the products disappeared from store shelves, McKenna said. “I would be worried about anyone with a large supply of an adulterated product,” he said. At a convenience store in Pullman’s College Hill neighborhood, many Washington State University students rushed to get their Four Loko fix after the ban was announced last week. “Wednesday night, when everyone heard about the ban, we sold out,” said Tyler Buckham, a Don’s Midway Grocery employee. “Everyone was stocking up.” Buckham said his biggest single sale was eight cases for nearly $300. They ordered another 30 flats after selling out to meet the heightened demand. There was a similar surge in sales at Spokane’s Hamilton Mart, located near Gonzaga University. The owner, Vinh Ho, said his biggest single sale was 10 cases. Many Four Loko fans who come in his store have expressed frustration over the ban. “The people that buy it, they think it’s just overreacting,” he said. McKenna said the drinks’ popularity has skyrocketed dangerously in the past two years, leading to more alcohol-related incidents. “We can look around over the last couple of years and see something has changed, something is different,” he said. “What we are seeing now is striking.” Staff writer Jim Camden and The Associated Press contributed to this report.