Alcohol-caffeine mix raises state's concern

Staff WriterNovember 13, 2010 

— Caffeinated malt beverages banned in at least two states are now coming under scrutiny in North Carolina, where Gov. Beverly Perdue is asking that they be removed, at least temporarily, from store shelves.

Perdue's request follows a move this week by Washington state officials to ban the drinks, which are 12 percent alcohol and come in splashy, multicolored, 23.5-ounce cans similar to nonalcoholic energy drinks. In Washington, regulators banned the drinks after nine students at Central Washington University were hospitalized and one student nearly died after drinking them, according to published reports.

The combination of alcohol and caffeine, both of which dehydrate the body, can be dangerous, said Mary Covington, executive director of campus health services at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Opponents say the drinks pose a danger because people may not realize how much alcohol they're consuming.

"The caffeine actually masks the sedative effect of alcohol," Covington said. "It makes people feel less impaired than they are. They think they're OK, but it's an illusion."

Michigan also has banned the drinks, and other states are considering doing so as well.

In North Carolina, the ABC Commission, which regulates alcohol sales, will take up the issue Thursday. Most beer in North Carolina has an alcohol content of 3 to 5.5 percent. A standard can or bottle is 12 ounces. A single, 23.5-ounce caffeinated malt beverage, at 12 percent, provides at least four times the buzz.

"We've never regulated caffeine before," said Jon Williams, chairman of the state's ABC Commission. "But these products seem designed around combining a high amount of alcohol with a high amount of caffeine."

The drinks, which generally sell for $2 to $3 each, are widely available in convenience stores and other places where beer is sold.

Perdue said in a news release Friday she wants the manufacturers to remove them from shelves voluntarily until they're "proven safe." A federal Food and Drug Administration study of these energy drinks is under way and eventually may answer the question.

The most prominent of these products is Four Loko, a malt beverage that comes in a variety of sweet, fruity flavors and also contains guarana, taurine and caffeine.

Warning labels

In the Triangle, universities say they're watching the issue but thus far have not seen its ill effects.

But these drinks aren't breaking any new ground in combining alcohol and caffeine. Drinkers have been mixing the two for years; when the Red Bull energy drink emerged earlier this decade, drinkers quickly paired it with vodka, which has a far larger alcohol content by volume and thus could do more damage depending on how much is consumed, Covington said.

And that's the point the manufacturers of Four Loko have tried to make in recent weeks as their product has come under fire. Four Loko is made by Phusion Projects LLC in Chicago. A company spokesman said Friday that Perdue's request that the drinks be removed from store shelves is misguided since it doesn't also target drinks that mix caffeine with liquor, which has a far higher alcohol content.

"No matter which type of alcohol a person may choose to drink or to - in some cases - abuse, responsible alcoholic beverage companies have a responsibility to work to ensure their products are consumed safely, responsibly and by adults of legal age," a company statement issued Friday reads in part. "Our cans feature seven different warning labels, our alcohol-by-volume warning is in a font as large as is allowed by law, and we work alongside our distributors and the stores that sell our products to ensure they are marketed, sold and consumed lawfully and responsibly."

That argument resonates with John Boy, owner of Sam's Quik Shop, a popular beer shop near Duke University.

"What's the difference between stocking that or something else?" Boy said. "They're not banning liquor, are they?"

Four Loko sells well in Boy's shop, but students seem to treat it as a fad or an oddity, he said.

"It's the latest and greatest thing out there," he said. "But one year the students want one thing, then it's something else."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563.

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