FDA warns makers of alcoholic energy drinks

FRESNO, California

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The Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown Wednesday on those alcoholic energy drinks.

Now, Four Loko is getting less crazy. The alcoholic energy drink is one of several targeted by the FDA.

The agency says their consumption has led to alcohol poisoning, car accidents and assaults -- because of the combination of caffeine and alcohol.

"It can feel like you're wide awake, that you aren't drunk, when in fact your senses are impaired," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner.

Two high profile cases in Washington and New Jersey focused the government's attention on the drinks. In all, more than 30 college students were hospitalized after drinking Four Loko.

Fresno nutritionist Kim Tirapelle says the danger goes beyond the synergistic effects of alcohol and caffeine.

"You know, it's opposing effects on our body," said Tirapelle, who works with athletes and others at Terrio Edge. "It's a central nervous stimulant and a depressant. Very dangerous for your brain."

Tirapelle says the drinks are also deceptively strong, unlike mixed drinks -- like Irish cream and coffee, or even Red Bull and vodka.

A single can of Four Loko has about 100 milligrams of caffeine, compared to 76 milligrams in a typical Red Bull and vodka drink from a bar. And Four Loko contains the equivalent of 3 1/2 shots of alcohol, while the Red Bull and vodka drink is just one shot.

"Their blood alcohol content significantly increases in a short amount of time and before they even realize it because caffeine's masking that effect, they're already on their second or third Four Loko," said Tirapelle.

The FDA warning didn't go out to the makers of some drinks with alcohol and caffeine -- like Crunk Juice and Wide Eye schnapps. But the manufacturers who got warnings have 15 days to respond.

The makers of Four Loko issued a statement saying "the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe", but they also announced they'll remove caffeine from the drinks.

In fact, distributors at Donaghy Sales, LLC, in Fresno tell Action News they're already stockpiling on the new version of Four Loko -- the one without caffeine -- but they're not putting it on store shelves until they sell out of the old version, with caffeine.

For now, the revved-up drinks are still behind the glass at liquor stores, but Wednesday's action by the FDA means the government could eventually seize the products if the companies continue to make them.

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Associated Press Story

The Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters Wednesday to four manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks often consumed by college students, saying the caffeine added to their beverages is an "unsafe food additive."

The combination of caffeine and alcohol in the drinks creates a public health concern and can lead to "a state of wide-awake drunk," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. Evidence has shown their consumption has led to alcohol poisoning, car accidents and assaults, she said.

The government could eventually seize the products if the companies continue to make and market them. The companies have 15 days to respond to the letters and either explain how they will take their products off the market or defend their drinks as safe.

Several college students have been hospitalized in recent months after consuming the drinks. The FDA said experts have raised concerns that the caffeine in the drinks can mask a person's feeling of intoxication, leading to risky behavior. Many of those who consume the drinks are underage drinkers.

In response to such incidents, four states -- Washington, Michigan, Utah and Oklahoma -- have banned the beverages. Other states are considering similar action.

White House Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday that the FDA's quick action to decrease consumption of the drinks is critical.

"These products are designed, branded, and promoted to encourage binge drinking," he said.

With the FDA decision imminent, Phusion Projects, which manufactures the popular Four Loko, announced late Tuesday that it would reformulate its drinks and remove the caffeine.

The company's statement said it was reformulating the drinks after unsuccessfully trying to deal with "a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels."

"We have repeatedly contended -- and still believe, as do many people throughout the country -- that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe," said Chris Hunter, Jeff Wright and Jaisen Freeman, who identify themselves as Phusion's three co-founders and current managing partners.

Four Loko comes in several varieties, including fruit punch and blue raspberry. A 23.5-ounce can sells for about $2.50 and has an alcohol content of 12 percent, comparable to four beers, according to the company's website.

The FDA said it views Phusion Projects' announcement as a positive step, but officials said they have not yet heard directly from the company about its timeline for taking the drinks off the market.

The FDA also issued warning letters to Charge Beverages Corp., New Century Brewing Co. and United Brands Company Inc.

Last year the FDA notified more than two dozen manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it never had specifically approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and began studying whether it was unsafe and should be outlawed. The agency noted the mix's growing popularity among college students and its potential health and safety issues.

Wednesday's letters focused on seven drinks made by four manufacturers, but Deputy Commissioner Josh Sharfstein said he expects the agency's message to resonate.

"We expect these warning letters to be read across the industry," he said.

Robert McKenna, Washington State Attorney General, praised the FDA move after nine Central Washington University students were sent to a hospital in October after a party where the students drank Four Loko. He said the drinks' popularity has dangerously skyrocketed in the past two years.

"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."

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