Amid FDA warnings, maker of Four Loko to remove caffeine content

Nan Turner

Staff Writer

The Food and Drug Administration has issued warning letters to four makers of alcoholic energy drinks, saying the mixture of caffeine with alcohol in their products is an “unsafe food additive.”

The FDA said the government could seize the controversial beverages if the companies ignore warnings and continue to make them.

In a statement, Phusion Projects said that it planned to re-release its products “to remove caffeine, guarana and taurine nationwide. … Going forward Phusion will produce only non-caffeinated versions of Four Loko.”

“We have repeatedly contended … that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe. If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees … would face the same scrutiny that our products recently faced,” the statement said. “We are taking this step after trying – unsuccessfully – to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels.”

Despite the change in formula, Four Loko and several other caffeinated alcoholic drink brands like Tilt and Joose could be on their way out in Virginia – or at least subject to harsher regulations.

Most recently, Four Loko was banned in Washington following a house party at a university where several students who had consumed the beverage ended up hospitalized. College campuses around the country are working to educate students on the dangers of consuming these drinks. The drinks have even spawned a website,, where individuals can share their often-fuzzy recollections of nights spent drinking Four Loko.

This Monday, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control sent out a press release warning consumers to use caution when it comes to alcoholic energy drinks. The release sited the main hazards of drinking Four Loko and other similar products.

The release said that, according to a 2008 study published by the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, people who mixed alcohol and energy drinks had a reduced ability to gauge their level of intoxication and were at a greater risk for driving under the influence of alcohol, becoming the victim of a sexual assault and a variety of other dangers. Also, people who mixed alcohol and energy drinks drank significantly more alcohol during a typical drinking session.

“Major concerns are the high alcohol content and the dangers associated with mixing high doses of stimulants and alcohol,” Jennifer Farinholt, Public Relations Specialist for Virginia ABC, said. “They appeal to young people.”

Thomas Novak, a VCU student, believes people are uninformed about the risks associated with alcoholic energy drinks.

“I don’t like them because of the idea of alcohol being a depressant and energy drink being a stimulant doesn’t mix well knowing they’re opposite effects in one drink,” Novak said. “It can’t be good for you.”

Novak has only had sips of the drinks, but said he has friends that enjoy them. He thinks another thing that makes the drinks troublesome is the non-alcoholic flavor.

“One thing that probably makes them dangerous is that people like the way it tastes and people find it ‘yummy’ so they forget its alcohol,” Novak said. “So that could be a major problem. I can’t imagine it would be good for your heart.”

Leah Kemp, another VCU student, has had the drinks on several occasions but tries now to avoid them since having a bad experience. She consumed two of the beverages in one night and did not like how shaky the caffeine intake made her feel.

“I’ve heard drinking more than one is like having 12 cups of coffee and I can’t handle two cups,” Kemp said. “While it makes me drunk, it makes me hyper at the same time, too.”

Although she can see the appeal to students, Kemp thinks the drinks should be banned.

“It tastes good, but I feel like it’s killing me slowly as I drink it,” Kemp said.  “And also, they’ve made me sick.”

Another problem the state is having with the drinks revolves around product recognition while in store. There has been debate as to whether the drinks look to similar in appearance to, and are placed to closely to the non-alcoholic energy drinks in licensed retailers.

“Right now ABC is in the final stages of requiring inventory in the same area with wine and beer,” Farinholt said.

In 2008, the Virginia ABC’s Enforcement’s Compliance, Education & Field Operations section and the Public Affairs Division designed the “Alcohol? Energy? Looks Can Be Deceiving” poster. The posters were then distributed to licensees, schools, parent groups and health educators. Additional information was distributed through the ABC’s website.

Most recently, ABC mailed letters to all 17,000 licensees urging retailers to use caution when selling alcoholic energy drinks. ABC is also investigating the sale of the beverages through its Underage Buyer Program.

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