Adiós, Four Loko: Ohio bans distribution of beverage

Gillian Seaman and Sage Schaff

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The Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Liquor Control may not have the legal authority to halt the sales of Four Loko within the state. But that did not stop them from contacting Phusion Projects, United Brands Company, and all other manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and retailers of all alcohol energy drinks in Ohio requesting that they cease any marketing, promotion, manufacturing, and sales. Director Kimberly Zurz stated that the Division was responding to the perceived health and safety threats alcoholic energy drinks presented. As of this Wednesday, the manufacturers of Four Loko and suppliers of Joose have agreed to desist distribution of their products in Ohio.

The Divisions’ actions may not have been entirely necessary. After a rash of negative press from reports of multiple individuals who experienced severe alcohol poisoning from drinking Four Loko, Phusion Projects announced this past Tuesday plans to remove all caffeine, guarana, and taurine from their products. Effectively removing the energy from their alcoholic energy drinks.

Four Loko, an alcoholic energy drink produced in 23.5-ounce cans with either 6 or 12 percent alcohol by volume, depending on state regulations, has roughly the same amount of caffeine as a tall Starbucks coffee.

The company continues to argue the combination of caffeine and alcohol is not inherently unsafe. Phusion Project’s three co-founders, Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright, and Jaisen Freeman, have said, “We have repeatedly contended – and still believe, as do many people throughout the country – that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe.”

The idea that a mixture of caffeine and alcohol can be safe is somewhat questionable to Case Western Reserve University manager of community development Skip Begley. “Basically you’re beating all your body’s inherent defense mechanisms against the alcohol until you’re going to be at a point where you’re in a lot of trouble,” he said. “I don’t think anybody, no matter what age, is thinking enough about [what the] effects of a depressant and a stimulant are doing to your system. You’re able to drink more of it and you’re not going to feel the effects until you just flat-out drop.”

CWRU EMS member Kathryn Goldberg noted that Four Loko appeared to be a popular drink on campus and agreed with Begley’s comments about its dangers. “I think energy drinks with an ABV [alcohol by volume] are a pretty bad idea” she said. “Students do not get sleepy from the alcohol, and can stay awake to keep drinking far past their limit and increase their chances of alcohol poisoning.”

As of press time, state agencies in Michigan, Washington, Utah, Oklahoma, and Ohio had all either banned the drink or severely curtailed its availability due to its perceived dangers. The bans do not seem apparently unwarranted. In a highly publicized incident in Washington, nine students affiliated with Central Washington University were hospitalized with blood alcohol levels ranging from .12 percent to .35 percent.

For Begley, a key factor in avoiding such instances is education about the consequences of mixing caffeine and alcohol. “If it’s out there, we need to be honest and open about it. We talk about the effects of hard liquor vs. beer vs. wine. It’s time to insert a new category into that as well,” said Begley.

From a purely economic standpoint, it’s easy to see why Four Loko attracts so many college students. It contains as much alcohol as six beers. If a can of Four Loko costs $2.50 and a six-pack runs at $5 or $6, the choice is obvious. Part of the allure also lies in the sheer power of the drink. “Anyone is almost certain to get drunk after drinking just one Four Loko. It is a quick way to consume large amounts of alcohol and its taste is not overly repulsive,” explained CWRU law student Scott Lippert, 22.

Four Loko is not the first of its kind to hit the market, however. A notable predecessor to the drink was Sparks. Introduced in 2002, Sparks was subject to similar scrutiny regarding its mixture of caffeine, guarana, ginseng, and taurine along with alcohol. In 2008, MillerCoors LLC announced that it would remove the caffeine from Sparks after receiving requests from San Francisco and 13 other states.

While Four Loko in its present incarnation may not be around much longer, Begley noted that students have and will presumably continue to mix caffeinated drinks with alcohol, and it is important that students are aware of the consequences. “You need to know what you’re putting in your body. If you don’t have an understanding of what you’re really doing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”