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States work to ban Four Loko: While the drink is an inexpensive ticket for the ‘Hot Mess Express,’ it is also harmful to your health

November 18th, 2010

Four Loko, the popular caffeinated alcoholic drink, has gained the attention of students, parents and universities across the country.

Featuring neon-colored cans and fruity flavors, Four Loko has become the drink of choice for college and high school students.

For many, the drinks are ideal because of their high alcohol content and low price. One 23.5-ounce can costs $2.50 and has six or 12 percent alcohol by volume, depending on state regulations.

It would take 10 light beers to reach the same percent by volume.

Senior Holly Kleese recognizes students’ tendencies to buy these drinks.

“Four Loko is the cheapest alcoholic drink money can buy. It’s no wonder poor college students choose it over other more expensive alcoholic beverages,” she said.

In addition to the high level of alcohol in the drinks, they also incorporate a considerable amount of caffeine. One Four Loko has as much caffeine as a tall coffee at Starbucks.

According to Karin Palmer, John Carroll’s resident nutritionist, this mixture of caffeine and alcohol is what makes the drinks so dangerous.

She points out that the caffeine masks the alcohol so that you feel wide-awake without feeling drunk. For a while, at least.

“These drinks mix a stimulant and a depressant, and the stimulant counteracts the depressant,” she said. “So people feel invincible from the caffeine, but then they crash from the alcohol.”

Four Loko’s eight flavors, which range from blue raspberry to cranberry lemonade, also disguise the alcohol.

The Director of the JCU Health Center, Jan Krevh said students need to be aware of the drink’s effects.

“First [students should] educate [themselves],” she said.  “Know what you are drinking and consider why you are drinking it, as this drink gives a false sense of sobriety. Four Loko can cause your body to feel fully awake while becoming legally drunk quickly increasing the chance of the user to make bad choices.”

Many people have complained that the brightly colored and fruity drinks are being targeted at underage drinkers.

In response to these accusations Phusion Projects, the company that produces the drinks, issued a statement to state and federal regulators.

In the statement the three founders promise to work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create standards for the caffeinated alcoholic beverage industry.

They write, “While we don’t agree with the notion that mixing caffeine and alcohol is inherently unsafe, we do agree with the goal of keeping adults of legal age who choose to drink responsibly as safe and as informed as possible.”

On its website,  Phusion Products makes clear efforts to defend itself against further attack.

It points out that the act of combining alcohol and caffeine is not a new practice and claims that Four Loko has “roughly” the same amount of alcohol as wine and some craft beers.

The company also addresses the issues of the brightly colored cans and the appealing flavors.

It argues that Four Loko’s colors are no brighter or more appealing than the blue, red and greens of popular beers like Budweiser and Heineken, and compares its flavors to other popular alcoholic drinks such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice.

“Flavored alcoholic beverages are nothing new; today bubble gum, raspberry and blueberry vodkas are all on the market – all with several times the alcohol content of Four Loko,” writes the company.

For some, these refutations are not enough to counter the many cases popping up across the country of students becoming ill from the drinks.

This fall students at Ramapo College in New Jersey and Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash. found themselves in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning after a night of Four Loko.

Several of the students had blood alcohol levels as high as .3. In Ohio, someone with a blood alcohol level of .08 is considered legally drunk.

Many schools are now banning the sale of Four Loko on and around their campuses. Michigan became the first state to ban alcoholic energy drinks all together; Washington, Utah and Oklahoma soon followed.

On Sunday, Phusion Products agreed to stop shipments to New York state.

Four Loko masks high amounts of caffeine and alcohol with fruity flavors and pretty packaging.

But the drinks are increasingly coming under public scrutiny, and are facing serious disapproval by state regulators, universities, parents and students.

For now, the drinks remain on shelves in Ohio.